CLEARWATER — Dozens of education leaders, from the state commissioner of education to teachers, packed into a tight conference room Monday along with parents to kick off what was billed as a historic three-day summit tackling Florida's most nagging and controversial education issues.
On the agenda (deep breath): helping the state make some key decisions on new learning standards, testing, school grades and teacher evaluations.
The discussion gave voice to a wide range of opinions. It also came on the heels of several controversies involving the state's accountability system, a political firestorm over the new Common Core State Standards and a number of recent self-inflicted blows involving school grades.
Will it change anything?
"What we plan to gain is to listen — to hear what everyone has to say, to hear what's most important," interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told reporters during a break. "I think there are some things that we want to take a closer look at and make sure that we're on the right track."
The summit, called by Gov. Rick Scott, continues today and Wednesday at St. Petersburg College's Collaborative Labs conference facility in Clearwater. Scott did not attend Monday.
The first-day participants saw positive signs.
"It's been a long time since we've had this much of a diverse group together," state Sen. Bill Montford said. "I'm very optimistic that over these next three days we'll have a serious and on-point discussion."
St. Johns County superintendent Joe Joyner said, "I have all confidence that whatever the outcome of this, it will serve as the basis for policymaking across the state."
Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade County school superintendent, said he would like to see recommendations to the State Board of Education and the Legislature ensuring that "accountability in the state of Florida is good for kids, is respectful of the adults, provides for a set of standards that are internationally competitive and guarantees college and career readiness."
He said, "It's a tall order, but it's achievable."
Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, had a different definition of a successful summit, saying she hoped participants would be able to acknowledge the current system isn't working.
"We need a fair system that is understandable and equitable for everybody," she said. "Can it be done? Yes, it can be done. Can it be done in three days? Absolutely not."
The first day, spent mostly on introductions and discussing the history of the state's accountability system, made one thing clear: Agreement won't be easy.
McCall, talking about teacher evaluations, said teachers "don't feel the system has value, and they don't trust the system."
Moments later, Keith Calloway with the Professional Educators Network made the opposite claim.
"I know a lot of people find this hard to believe," he said. "There are many of us teachers out there right now that like the evaluations. We like having meaningful feedback that is given to us."
The most contentious exchange came while the group was trying to set its "guiding principles" for the remaining days.
One of the principles initially read that the so-called PARCC test, designed to gauge whether students are learning the Common Core standards, "will require an excessive amount of testing time, will be too expensive, and has been marked by overreaches from the federal government into education policy."
The statement, which reflected multiple groups' objections to the test, was quickly deleted.
Said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association: "What everybody is trying to say is that it's premature … to have has a guiding principle on the first afternoon."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @Danny_Valentine.