ST. PETERSBURG — Tony Bennett played with his hands and rocked in his seat and said he was just going to come out and say it: "In the toughest schools, you have to have a principal who almost has a Navy SEAL mentality."
Such a principal, he said, must believe that nothing is more important than children learning and must hire teachers who feel the same way. Then schools must have the freedom to tailor themselves to students' needs.
And that, said Florida's education commissioner, is one key to fixing Pinellas County's most struggling schools.
Approaching his six-month mark as the head of Florida's education department, Bennett sat down Monday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board for a wide-ranging interview that touched on charter schools, teacher quality and even the traffic in Tallahassee (much more manageable than in Indianapolis).
Bennett is perhaps best known for being voted out of his position as the superintendent of Indiana schools last November. He became unpopular with voters after pushing reforms championed in Florida: school letter grades based on standardized test scores and the holding back of third-graders who fail the state reading exam. He was branded antiteacher after pushing for evaluations based on student test scores and the end of tenure.
In Florida, Bennett said, he's found "a much bigger openness" toward these measures, and the mind-set that competition from charter schools drives neighborhood public schools to improve.
The largest charter school in Pinellas is set to open this fall, and University Preparatory Academy is recruiting children from low-performing neighborhood schools like Melrose, Maximo and Campbell Park elementaries.
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Bennett pushed back against the view that charters strangle the surrounding traditional schools by taking their most involved families.
"That statement discounts the magic of teaching," Bennett said. "I don't think there's anything more degrading to teachers than to say a school full of 'bad kids' will lead to a bad school and teachers don't matter."
To fix these schools, Bennett said, Pinellas would need those Navy SEAL principals and those like-minded teachers.
Of course, he said, there were more pieces to the puzzle. Today, Bennett is scheduled to be in Tampa, where the State Board of Education is expected to discuss the Common Core State Standards.
Scheduled to be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year, the new standards not only will raise American students to the level of their international peers, said Bennett, but also allow teachers more flexibility.
The Common Core has its share of critics, and there are questions over whether schools and teachers are being adequately prepared for the switch.
But Bennett described the Common Core as "fewer standards that are much deeper and higher, richer."
"You're going to see more interdisciplinary instruction, you're going to see more technology in instruction," he said. "I think we're going to walk away, in five years, we're no longer going to be talking about teaching to the test."
Contact Lisa Gartner at email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).