School officials from all over Florida "Lead The Way"
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01/20/11 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia.


photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF (Jun. 2008)

School Superintendents and Teacher’s Association Presidents from all over the state met yesterday and today to discuss the future plans for education reform. The “Leading the Way” conference addressed some tough issues.

Florida Schools are facing a series of uncertain changes in the coming months and years with the arrival of an all new Rick Scott-led administration. School officials made certain they were ready for the changes by proposing one very dominant theme. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said coming together for one common goal is the first and best step in achieving academic excellence in Florida schools.

"I was in 3 schools a week when I was UFT president. I have never, not in 25 years, seen a school work on conflict and on that kind of adversary-ness."

But there is more to improvement than just working together. Weingarten also said we need to get away from the time tested and failed methods present in today’s classrooms.

"We have to help kids have innovation and ingenuity and creativity and ability to problem solve, not simply to be able to do rote mathematics or routine skills. Anybody who tells you that's an easy task for moving our schools from the industrial age to the knowledge age, in New York we would use the expressions that I do not use in Florida."

Senate Bill 6, legislation that would have eliminated tenure for teachers, was passed by the state legislature last year before ultimately being vetoed by former Governor Charlie Crist. It was an attempt to quickly solve the state’s struggling public education system. Governor Rick Scott has said he will approve similar legislation if it crosses his desk. While many speakers did not express opinions for or against a similar bill, President of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association Gene Clements said it is not the answer.

"In the rush to see sweeping changes materialize quickly, we're seeing quick fixes being proposed which may be quick but will not fix. We hear about new rules which can be followed but are not solutions. A couple of examples? Eliminating tenure, requiring half a teacher's evaluation be based on student performance, those are just rules, not solutions."

Weingarten said teachers can’t be blamed for everything, but sometimes removing them is necessary.

"How do we make sure we have really good teachers and how do we have mutual responsibility so that if we have somebody we can't help, how do we remove them in a fair and honorable way? But, teachers, responsible for everything. I used to tease, I don't tease anymore about this because it's oh too close to this. But I used to tease that teachers were responsible in people's minds for everything, including the Iraqi war. But ultimately teachers are really important, but are they really responsible for everything,and can they really do everything alone?"

But Weingarten said pointing fingers and fighting or even picking just one catalyst for the problems in our schools will not work.

"There are some people that will take that tough economic situation, one that American workers didn't create, that American school teachers didn't create and that they will use it to blame American school teachers. That's just wrong and what we're doing at this conference is we're coming up with a third way. We're saying, this is an approach. Not conflict, not finger pointing, not thinking that you can fire yourself to a good school system but how you can actually work with people to ensure good student achievement."

Speakers had a commonality beyond just collaboration though. They all spoke about the importance of retaining effective teachers. Hillsborough County MaryEllen Elia said the focus should be on improving various aspects of the educational system.

"You cannot fire your way to excellence. We can achieve excellence by getting better at things like hiring, placing, evaluating, supporting and compensating our teachers, but it isn't just getting rid of people that will bring excellence in classrooms. It doesn't fit on a headline or a bumper sticker but that's really what school reform requires."

Clements also said reform cannot be left in the hands of state and national government. She said it is up to school officials to ensure the success of our students.

"We, all of us in this room, must work together to prevent a misguided unaffordable, unsustainable one size fits all, forced overhaul of every district in the state that is doomed to set back and ultimately failure. We, all of us in this room, must work together to push for funding that makes quality affordable and attainable."

Whether or not legislation passes to modify public school policies and procedures, Weingarten said there is one very efficient way to improve that is also free.

"The willingness to work together, not saying how to structure it and achieve it, but the willingness to work together does not cost a nickel."

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