A weekend interview with Pam Stewart, incoming Florida K-12 education chancellor
Pam Stewart left her post as Florida deputy chancellor of educator quality in 2009 to become St. Johns deputy superintendent of academic services. This month she returns to the Department of Education as K-12 chancellor, charged with overseeing implementation of many of the state laws, policies and procedures affecting public schools. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her reasons for taking the job, and the most important issues she expects to tackle in the post.
I just want to talk with you as you plan to come to the state again, in a much different capacity, what you see as the most important things that you have to take care of and that school districts have to deal with now.
Probably the biggest issues right now are two, I would say, or maybe three: Race to the Top, ensuring that Florida is moving ahead with Race to the Top in an appropriate way; and the implementation of SB 736; and differentiated accountability.
How do you from your position make sure that those things happen properly? I've been hearing a lot of concerns from school districts, especially about the evaluations, that they're being rushed to do things.
I guess I could speak to that best from our situation that we are in here. We've invested a lot of time, and resources, and energy into the new evaluation system. While there are bumps, we feel this is the right direction we are headed in. And those things that are the bumps, we're working those out. I have all the confidence in the world that will happen here as we move forward. From the statewide perspective, I think it's our obligation to provide all the technical assistance and the support to help districts do this and do it well and do it right.
Evaluations, besides the timing, I haven't heard many people complain about them. It sounds like they want better evaluations so they know what's expected of them and if they're meeting those goals. But there's been some conversation about whether there should be a statewide evaluation instead of a district choice. Do you have a take on that?
Sure. It's interesting to me that we want local control but we don't want local control. I think the way that it's established, there's a state model that could be used, so in fact there is a state evaluation if you will, that districts could use or select a different model based on the research. I think that's sort of the ideal that you have a state model that you can use or, if you want, there's flexibility.
You used to be in charge of bad teachers, or good teachers, or however you want to describe it ...
All of educator quality.
I'm wondering if you see this movement plus value added, which has got some people confused and concerned, as going in the right direction?
Let me tell you that I served on the student growth implementation committee, so I was involved in the selection of that growth model. In theory, in philosophy, in looking at that model I think it's a good one. I think better than anything I have seen. And this was the world I lived in previously, so I've looked at getting at the contribution of the teacher to student achievement. And in my way of thinking, and it's why I applied to be on that committee, we've got to get that piece right and it does so better than any model I've seen. So how will the two mesh together? ... I am optimistically hopeful that is what we are going to see.
What about the teachers who have concerns that you don't have any way to really, truly measure what they are teaching? Like an AP calculus teacher.
Right. I agree with that. I wish there were something coming out of the box something that districts did feel like they could use. In AP calculus, a district could choose to use the AP calculus exam. To use a different example along the lines of what you're trying to get at, precalculus. There will eventually in 2014 be a measurement for that and a way to look at that teacher's growth. But in the interim, what we have is what we have. Speaking to this from the district perspective, we had a committee of 18 - 9 teachers and 9 administrators - sit down together and work that out, and everyone at the table said it's not ideal but it's what we have right now. We know moving forward every year we're going to be adding those other subject and grade levels to our valid and reliable end of course exams so we can do something very similar to what we're doing with FCAT subjects and grade levels.
What happens if a teacher gets caught up in the middle, with an evaluation that indicates they are needing improvement based on students that they never even taught?
That is clearly an issue. But that is half of the evaluation. The other half would get at that particular quality of that teacher that can help to mitigate if that shows up to be an issue. I think what we're really going to see when the reality comes out is that it is not going to drastically diminish that teacher's evaluation.
What about Race to the Top. That's another piece that you mentioned. The thing that I remember hearing from the very beginning is that there's not enough money to sustain all of the things that everyone is asking the schools to do in Race to the Top. Is there a way to make it happen and make it be systemic without having to rely only on Race to the Top funds? Because state money is not really huge.
Right. Again, I am hopefully optimistic on that as well. Part of the reason I am is because I sit in a district that fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, did not get a lot of money because we don't have a large free and reduced price lunch population. So everyone is saying it wasn't enough money to implement, but it really wasn't when you look at the proportion in our district here. So we found a way to implement Race to the Top with very little Race to the Top money. So sustaining is not going to be an issue in St. Johns County. So to use that example, depending on how it was used in districts, it is entirely possible that what was implemented with that money might not be able to be sustained at that level. But I am optimistic, I am hopeful that programs that are in place can be sustained. Quite honestly, I think that everybody thinks in Race to the Top the big piece is performance pay. But I don't think that can be the main use of the Race to the Top money because in fact that cannot be sustained. I think districts have to look at that piece in a restructuring manner. How can we restructure our current salary schedule? When you restructure the current salary schedule you're going to be able to maintain that.
Don't you have to wait for like 20 years to restructure a salary schedule because of all the people who are in under the old model?
We've run some models here. Again, I'm only speaking from St. Johns County. We've run some models and we would sustain people on the salary schedule who choose to remain on that salary schedule with little or no bumps in salary year to year. So in other words, if I'm a teacher who chooses to stay on the old salary schedule I can stay there but I'm not going to get yearly increases as I would have normally. Also with new teachers or teachers who choose to go over to the new salary schedule, it is built in such a way that you can do it with existing dollars.
Would the raises be more than $100 to $200 a year that some people were seeing?
We believe we can.
What made you decide to leave the district and go back to the state?
Quite honestly, this was absolutely without a doubt the hardest career decision I have ever made in my life, and I've made a few. But this one was very hard. I have often referred to St. Johns County as school district heaven, and I have loved every single day coming into work. And I love the work that I do. So, what makes me leave a place like St. Johns? ... I think what made the difference for me was that I see it as a challenge. I see it as necessary work. I see it as a place where I can help and make a contribution. Those were all things that drew me. ...
Are you worried about the political atmosphere in Tallahassee at all? Because it has changed since you were there?
It has changed. I don't know that worried is the right word. But braced for that. It's not that I don't know the political atmosphere that exists there. I am not a politician. I would never run for office. But what has served me well is being motivated to do the right thing. I always hold on to that, regardless of what is happening around me.