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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Interim education commissioner Pam Stewart wants to take her time, do reform right



For the second time in a year, Pam Stewart has been thrust into the top job at the Florida Department of Education, taking over after the hasty departure of another embattled commissioner. This time, she faces some major decisions that could significantly alter the direction of state public education. State lawmakers have called on the department to abandon the national testing consortium that Florida led as fiscal agent, instead forming a "Florida plan." Criticisms of the state's accountability and school grading systems have grown to the point where even supporters have questioned the model's validity. All in all, State Board member Kathleen Shanahan said at the meeting where Stewart was appointed, Florida faces a mess.

Since taking the interim commissioner post, Stewart has remained largely out of the public eye. She declined media interviews for more than a week, instead huddling with different interest groups to craft a plan of attack that she intends to announce only when she feels comfortable. On Monday, she agreed to speak with the Gradebook.

We're really interested in what you've been doing since you've been named commissioner, because you've obviously been busy.

Yes I have. Well, it's been six days. Today I've been here in Tampa, actually, at the financial literacy summit, and speaking as the keynote at that conference to open it up and kick it off. That was some time well spent. That -- as well as some other things -- was a commitment made by the previous commissioner Tony Bennett. Certainly, whenever I am able to, I wanted to keep those commitments. So that's what I have spent today doing.

Also, most days, although there have been a couple of days of travel, I went to the students with disabilities task force meeting that Senator Gardiner had established last Thursday. As is typical, a lot of travel has been involved. But just trying to assess where we are on several issues. That way I can be brought up to speed and make appropriate decisions and recommendations. So that's a lot of what I've been doing.

Did you talk to the governor at all, and others, about any of these issues? Who is giving you advice?

Well, actually, mostly internally at this point, although I have meetings with the governor's staff, as we do regularly. We're into a busy time of year, and they're trying to get several things done. We work with their office of policy and budget, so we continue that work just as we would have had things stayed the same. We are just continuing on those efforts.

I know one of the issues that everyone is waiting to hear about is what is going to happen with PARCC and Common Core. I think we were expecting commissioner Bennett to make an announcement real soon. And I know a lot of schools are waiting, because they're getting started right now. Have you come to any conclusions yet as to what that is going to look like?

No. And certainly when we're at the stage of being able to do that, we'll pull the press in and let you know about that. If you'll just be patient with us, we'll get there.

Okay. Well, how long is that going to take? And, does it make a difference if you make a decision at the beginning of the school year vs. the end of the school year?

Really, I think it's most important that teachers focus on the implementation of Common Core State Standards. And I'll let you know the assessment is an important decision, but it should not be the driver. The standards are the driver for what takes place in the classroom. So we want to keep teachers focused in that direction. The assessment is the natural progression of what happens at the conclusion of teaching the standards. So the assessment that goes along with Common Core will happen in '14-15. We'll continue with the time line that existed before, and teachers will be teaching the blended course descriptions for the '13-14 school year and that remains just as it had been planned all along. We want our teachers to stay focused there.

And what about the whole issue with school grades and accountability, all those questions that were raised even at the meeting where they appointed you to the position and Ms. Shanahan said we can't wait to fix this mess, we've got to do something now. I've talked to some superintendents who said they were expecting a committee of outside experts to be brought in to discuss what the future will look like in that regard. Are you still moving in that direction? Or what are your plans?

Again, I am focused on being brought up to speed and taking a look internally on how did we get to the school grade situation that we are in right now, and what is the best course of action for moving forward. When we are ready to talk about how we plan to move forward, I promise you that we will let you know.

I know. These were interesting questions that were brought up as being urgent. I don't know what urgent means, necessarily, if it means you have to do it in two days or two months or what.

I don't disagree. I think they are urgent. But it's important to be very thoughtful and careful about that kind of decision. That is what I am trying to be. I am trying to be responsive but I am also trying to make sure that it's the right direction and we're doing the right thing and we aren't hasty. I'm taking my time and being careful, but being very mindful of the urgency.

So, how long are you going to be in that position? Did they discuss that with you at all? Did they offer you a letter or a contract like they did with the past commissioners? Are you there for the long haul for a while?

At six days in, I would suggest to you that what I am thinking about is each and every single day. So right now at this moment I am not focused on that and have not entered into any discussions. But I really, similar to what I said before, am here to serve the students of the state of Florida in the best way I possibly can. That's my focus. That really is my driving force and what I will be focused on for however long I serve in this role.

I think that's the point that a lot of people raised when they asked for you to be the permanent commissioner last time. ... They thought so highly of you that they wanted you to be there. I just wonder with all of the things that are churning around, if anyone or if you have discussed the need to have some stability and some settling down.

I think it's important that we have some stability. But I have not entered into discussions. I am at this point taking each and every day and working to make sure that we are doing the right thing for kids in Florida, and that will be my focus. I appreciate all the support. I feel that support. It is helpful to me in this role for however long I serve in this role, because I can't do it without the support of folks out there. It's nice to hear. And I am happy to serve in this role for doing what we can to bring that stability. I think I can add that to the mix. I think I also can bring some vision. I can help to reassure some folks. However I can do that, I am willing to help and serve. I think the governor has been and continues to be supportive of education in Florida, and of Florida's teachers. I am ready to help in that mission however I can.

There's been a lot of talk that Florida's system is out of whack somehow. What do you say to that? How do you bring back the focus to where you want it to be? National newspapers ... are raising this question about whether Florida has gotten too far afield of the vision.

I think those are all considerations that we've got to think about. But I think Florida has been a leader for a long time. You can look at all of the measures that are used to measure education and in almost every one of them ... Florida has certainly made huge strides and is close to the top if not at the top of those measures. And we got to the top by the hard work of everyone out there in the districts, all of the students, the teachers, the parents, the administrators. And through our accountability system. Do we need to take a look at the accountability system? Absolutely. That's why I am focused on taking a look at what's the landscape right now and what's the best decision moving forward. But I think it's also important to take a look back at what we have achieved and what is that right balance.

What message do you have for all the people who are watching education in Florida?

My message would be that we are focused on that, and stay tuned. When we are at the point of being ready we will talk about that.

How long do you think we have to wait for that announcement? I have heard people say they're expecting it this week.

I don't know that I am ready to say that we have a specific time when we're going to come out with an announcement. But as soon as we have that ready, you will hear from us. There is a sense of urgency, but it has got to be right.

Is somebody telling you what has to be done, or giving you really strict guidelines you have to follow? Or are you getting to tell them what you think is right?

I don't think that I should be making this decision in isolation. So I am going to listen to folks and come up with a recommendation that I think is best.

[Last modified: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 9:04am]


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