Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Education

Testing glitches aside, Stewart is praised for stabilizing Florida's education system

Pam Stewart, who has survived an often-contentious period as Florida's education commissioner, received a solid performance review Wednesday from her bosses on the State Board of Education.

Board members largely praised her work during the nearly two years she has served, lauding her efforts to improve student achievement while shepherding new standards through a politically charged atmosphere. She is the longest-serving of four education commissioners during Gov. Rick Scott's five-year tenure.

"I've admired her work ethic and her desire to do right by kids," chairman Gary Chartrand said.

Still, he quickly added, "Nobody is perfect."

Chartrand said he didn't want to get into details. "But there's always room to improve," he said. "I know you were not satisfied with the glitches we had in testing."

Problems in the state's newest computerized exam system, which saw students having difficulties logging in and completing their tests, dominated public discussion about the Department of Education for much of the spring.

Critics of the system took to social media after learning that Stewart would be evaluated this week, calling for some accountability for the department's leader, whom many considered a failure.

Board members took no such step.

In less than 10 minutes, they acknowledged the need to make things better moving ahead. But they mostly talked about Stewart's positive attributes.

Their favorable treatment of the commissioner drew barbs from Florida BadAss Teachers, a vocal statewide educators group.

"Florida has become Alice in Wonderland," group spokesman Thomas James, a Miami teacher, said in a statement.

He added: "Today, the inept state Board of Education showed why we have become the laughingstock of the country when it comes to education policy. … After a disastrous year filled with repeated failures and a badly bumbled transition to new state tests, Commissioner Stewart is given a glowing evaluation."

Chartrand said Stewart, a veteran of the department and Florida school districts, brought stability to an agency following two commissioners' terms of a year or less.

Gerard Robinson, a onetime Virginia secretary of education, resigned under pressure a year after he began. He faced heavy criticism for his heavy-handed handling of FCAT changes.

Tony Bennett, a former Indiana state schools superintendent, quit after eight months amid a political scandal over school grading in his home state.

"I will tell you she's done a terrific job as she came into an unstable environment," Chartrand said of Stewart, who served twice as interim commissioner.

Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey marveled at Stewart's handling of a complex job with a multitude of accountability measures. She said she was impressed with the commissioner's ability to make progress despite lean budgets and other challenges.

Most notable was Stewart's comment during a private conversation that she did not want accolades presented during the board meeting, because more important issues were on tap, Fishman Lipsey added.

"Your response was, 'I don't want to be praised in this space because the focus should be on obtaining the highest per-student funding. … Please don't say anything to distract from that,' " Fishman Lipsey said. "I just thought it was a real note on your character."

On that issue, the board unanimously adopted a motion urging lawmakers to approve per-student funding levels $50 higher than the historic high, as Scott has proposed.

Stewart, who last week gave the board a 350-page self-evaluation, made no comments during the brief conversation except to thank board members for their support. In the document, she said she had achieved her goals, successfully advocated for improvements to the system and worked to boost student performance. She made note of the recent testing problems, but said they were not a major issue.

Board members said they planned to talk about Stewart's next evaluation, and the priorities they want her to focus on, during a summer workshop.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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