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Interview With Tony Bennett

Ousted by Indiana for moving too fast, a committed reformer finds a new home in the Sunshine State.

So far, Florida’s new state superintendent of education, Tony Bennett, is having what seems like an awfully good time. He’s head of one of the most pro-reform school systems in the nation. He’s got the support of both the governor, Rick Scott, who tapped him for the job, and a powerful business and reform community headed by former governor Jeb Bush. A member of the reform-leaning state superintendents’ group Chiefs for Change, Bennett speaks with the rapid confidence of someone who has been a building and district administrator, a state education leader, and a classroom teacher.

But Bennett hasn’t been in his current position long. Just this past November, he was ousted from his spot as the head of public schools in Indiana—the position is an elected one and his policies had become controversial. Some of the same challenges will undoubtedly emerge in the Sunshine State, where administrators are pursuing an aggressive timeline for implementing the Common Core, and state lawmakers are considering a “parent trigger” that would allow parents to convert failing district schools into charters.

Q Some states are struggling to implement the Common Core standards. How is Florida doing?
A The first thing is to make sure that the state department of education does its work with districts to ensure that all of our teachers are prepared to teach to these standards. That’s a significant implementation lift. Everyone is very “bought into” the Core in Florida. We believe there is no reason Common Core standards and assessments shouldn’t be fully implemented in 2014–15.

Q What do you like so much about it?
A The beauty of the Common Core is that it honors teacher creativity. In its purest description, it tells us “fewer, deeper, richer.” Indiana had highly acclaimed standards, but there were so many indicators and things that were required of teachers that you were pretty dramatically narrowing the scope of teachers’ creativity. With fewer standards, the Common Core allows a teacher to work outside the box, to think about thematic instruction, new technology, and customized learning. It really does give them the opportunity to explore innovative practices.

Q So it’s going to be easy then?
A Implemented with fidelity, the Common Core will transform the way students learn and teachers teach. This is not your normal standards-adoption process, where a teacher says, “Hey, how can I tweak these materials to meet these new standards?” This will require teachers to transform the way they do their jobs.

Q What’s your position on the “parent trigger”? And how is it going in the statehouse?
A I’ve always been a proponent of school choice, and I think we have been committed to working with the legislature, making sure that there are no constitutional challenges in the way. But as to predicting what happens next, I’ve only been here about 70 days and I’m still learning the political context.

Q You’ve been an elected state education superintendent and now an appointed one—which is better?
A [Laughs.] That’s a great question. Both have positives and negatives. In both cases, I’ve had the benefit of walking in lockstep with a governor who is committed to education. In Indiana, however, there was that unwanted pressure of an election. I tried not to think about the election aspect of the job, and I was obviously very good at that.

Q What were your biggest accomplishments as head of Indiana’s schools?
A In my four years in Indiana, we were the most aggressive state in the U.S. in terms of driving education reform policy. It would be hard to replicate what was done in Indiana in 2011 [changes in school choice, school accountability, teacher evaluation], and I’m not sure in the near future we will see anything that comes close. It was a comprehensive overhaul. We did all that in a very tough economic environment, and we drove up every indicator of student performance.

Q What was the major lesson or challenge from that experience?
A The greatest lesson is that we need to develop a message that resonates with everyone. Our message didn’t register with the middle class. In those smaller, more rural communities, where people were very comfortable, they didn’t feel that same sense of urgency. So the education establishment was pretty successful in painting it as an anti-teacher or anti–public education agenda.

Q What would a smarter reform message have been?
A We said that we needed to insert competition into the system, but that didn’t resonate in rural and suburban Indiana. However, if you asked virtually anyone if it was more socially acceptable to give everyone the same opportunities as middle- or upper-middle-class families, you’d get a good response. Focusing on a free-market argument led to this backlash that we were privatizing education, that we were “corporate” reformers. It would have been a much better discussion to focus on giving every child the same advantages.

Q What about the accusation that outsiders supported your ideas?
A The National Education Association came in and played in our race very significantly at the end, and that was used against me. The opposition ran a high-tech, high-touch campaign; they targeted specific audiences to go against us. They went to the schools of education and built a coalition of preservice teachers and ed-school profs. They went to the anti–Common Core crowd and played to them. But I have to give them credit—it was a nano-targeted campaign.

Q What’s your biggest challenge in communicating with district leaders?
A The role of the state education agency is to set high expectations, and to hold people accountable if they don’t meet those expectations. In the middle is the “how to get things done section”—and that’s where the important concept of local control takes place. Those decisions about how to meet the expectations should be made locally, so I believe that the model we have tried to pursue honors local decisions.

Q How hard has it been to move from one state to another?
A I was accused of trying to make Indiana the Florida of the Midwest, so I had a pretty good idea of the policy environment of Florida. The state has been a leader in ed reform initiatives, and it’s been a great model to follow. Indiana was the first to do it, and that gave me a real leg up moving to Florida. The thing that has struck me the most about Florida educators is that everyone here is so open to change. They understand the need for accountability. Administrators and teachers speak with pride about being an A school, or about what they must do to go from C to B. In Indiana they were trying to criticize the measurements, saying they weren’t valid. Here, there is a much deeper appreciation, if not total agreement, about the need to improve.

—Summer 2013—

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