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Both Skepticism And Cautious Optimism In Wake Of Emergency Education Summit

A hastily-convened summit in Clearwater has education watchers cautiously optimistic that Florida’s varying education factions may have reached a consensus.

The summit came as Florida continues navigating a rocky transition to new education standards. The state’s school grading system is facing questions about its validity and that of a new and teacher evaluation system.

“We are in a bit of a crisis, but it can be fixed if people can put aside politics and come up with real answers," said state Senator Dwight Bullard (D-Miami).

Bullard is a social studies teacher and critic of Florida’s policies when it comes to grading schools and teachers. He’s also not a fan of the way the state has gone about implementing new learning goals for students, called the common core. Bullard says he believes it’s time for the state to take a pause.

One of the biggest issues facing policy makers is what to do about Florida’s school grading formula. The state board of education had to extend a “safety net” rule preventing schools from falling more than a letter. Had that rule not been in place, the number of failing schools would have ballooned into the hundreds:

“Sometimes, you have to have a tragedy to realize that we have to come together and fix this, and the school grades were a disaster this year, said Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt, who attended the conference.

He says he believes the school grade problems were a wakeup call to the state. Florida has been steadily increasing its test performance standards for students and teachers as it phases in common core, and more than 30 changes had been made to the grade formula in less than a year, and outgoing Alachua County School Superintendent Dan Boyd says he’s seen enough:

“I would like to stop what we’re doing. Until we get it right , cut it out. Because I have reached the point where I have no faith in it.”

Boyd says he hopes the summit will lead to a serious review of Florida’s education policies, and while some have criticized Governor RICK Scott for being absent from  a summit he convened, Boyd commends the governor for calling the conference in the first place.

“I appreciate Governor Scott, and him assuming leadership in this arena and I hope there will be a positive impact on this because its broke right now, and I think it behooves all of us to get it right because too many lives are being affected by this and we don’t have it right," he said.

“I would hope everyone could end up in a place that has an open forum for people’s views on this as we move forward and the implementation is done," said Hillsboro County School Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia.

She hopes lawmakers will actually take the advice of teachers and local officials into consideration. There have been other summits in the past, usually ending with one group having their recommendations ignored.  Elia is also urging the state to not get cold feet when it comes to the new common core learning standards. She says talk of scrapping the tests aligned with those new standards is premature:

“I think the assessments need to be nationally-normed assessments, and that means a test that’s not a specific, Florida-test. Other places are using them, so you’ll know how Florida really aligns itself to other places in the country and I think that’s an important distinction.”  

And Alachua County’s Bill Husfelt , who attended the summit, says he feels a consensus is emerging on how the state should move forward. Husfelt says while many of the policy rules governing grades and evaluations will stay in place this year, lawmakers could stave off some of the penalties attached, which could help with the transition to common core.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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