TODAY AND THURSDAY in Tampa, leaders of teachers unions and superintendents from across Florida have a chance to prove they can work together to improve public schools, particularly in controversial areas such as performance pay for teachers. The title of the conference — Leading the Way: Strategies for Transforming Florida Schools — says it all, and with it comes the explicit understanding that school reform works best when it directly involves classroom teachers, the very people on whom the future of education depends.
Gov. Rick Scott has made it clear that if teachers and districts don't come up with a plan to measure performance, he and the Legislature will do it for them. But the Hillsborough County school district, aided by its $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been doing just that, bringing together teachers, their union and district officials to figure out the best ways to mentor new teachers, to get rid of ineffective ones and to link pay to student gains in appropriate ways. In short, they are figuring out the best way to improve classroom instruction and the future of Florida's children.
Spurred by that success, the Hillsborough school district, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents decided to bring together people from across Florida for the next two days to talk about what works, and the Gates Foundation agreed to pay for it.
A key discussion over the next 48 hours will be so-called value-added measures — how to fairly determine how much a teacher adds to a student's education in a school year beyond expectations.
More than 250 people, including representatives from nearly every Florida district, are attending the conference. The who's who of participants includes more than a third of the state's superintendents, Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, Florida Education Association president Andy Ford, and Bill Montford, chief executive of the Florida superintendents association.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association also will be there.
Some of the very people who will be converting ideas into legislation will be there as well, including state Sen. Stephen Wise, who chairs the Senate pre-K through 12 education committee, and state Rep. Will Weatherford of Pasco County, who carefully follows education issues, will give the closing address Thursday. The governor was invited but will not be attending.
This critical mass of key officials creates a good opportunity to show what can happen when educators of all kinds work together, looking out for the best interests of the state's students. They can stand on common ground to build a foundation for the future. It's an important opportunity to seize.