Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Editorials

New education chief needs to listen, learn

First the Florida Board of Education complained that the backlash against high-stakes testing and a new teacher evaluation system is the result of poor communication rather than flawed public policy. Then the board chose as the next education commissioner Indiana's state school superintendent, who lost his bid for re-election because he could not sell similar education policies to voters. It is a predictable choice that values conservative ideology over proven performance, but perhaps Tony Bennett will have better luck communicating with Floridians than with his fellow Hoosiers.

Bennett sounded like a politician in his glib interview before the education board, which unanimously voted Wednesday to make him the fourth leader of the state's public schools and colleges in just two years. He spoke in generalities, fully embraced the high-stakes testing that has distorted public education priorities in Florida, and promised he could convince teachers and parents it is the correct approach. He brushed off a question about his own ego as an elected statewide politician moving to an appointed position, suggesting he was only implementing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' vision and can work with anyone.

Let's hope Bennett means it. Under-the-gun teachers, overtested students and cash-strapped principals have plenty to tell him. And he had better be willing to listen to these people on the front lines of education and advocate adjustments to better reflect the reality of the classroom.

The Jeb Bush acolytes on the Board of Education hired another true believer in Bennett. But they are in denial about the legitimate issues teachers and parents have with Florida's direction. Several board members, including two who served as chiefs of staff for Bush when he was governor, Sally Bradshaw and Kathleen Shanahan, suggested the problem is in the sales pitch rather than the policies and their implementation. Bradshaw bemoaned the "anti-testing mentality in Florida,'' and Shanahan complained the teacher unions "are here to play against us.'' Is this the Board of Education, or the Republican Party executive committee?

As Bennett noted, in the ideal world "assessment doesn't take away from instruction.'' Accountability and assessments are necessary and valued. But the state has a troubled record of carrying out those missions in meaningful ways. At the moment, Florida is saddled with simplistic and misleading letter grades for schools, standardized testing that has yet to evolve into timely, useful measures, and an unfair teacher evaluation scheme. Florida families recognize flawed education policy when they see it, no matter how good the sales pitch.

Bennett may well have been the best of the three finalists for education commissioner. He is a former teacher, principal and local school superintendent, and he sounds passionate about public education. But he will have to be a better communicator in Florida than he was in Indiana, and he will have to be more willing to embrace changes to statewide testing and teacher evaluations to be successful. He need look no further than Tampa Bay to see the disconnect between Tallahassee and the classroom.

On the same day Bennett interviewed for his new job in Tampa, Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego and the School Board discussed alternatives to a flawed method of evaluating teachers. Grego even suggested seeking a legislative change to abandon a complicated formula that has led to many teachers being assessed based on the performance of students they never even taught.

That's not a communication problem. That's a flawed policy problem, and the new education commissioner should be a better listener than some of his new bosses.

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