Q&A: Lastinger Center head Don Pemberton shares his experiences on new Gov. Scott’s education transition team

Posted January 25, 2011 Members of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s elite education transition team took his campaign slogan, “Let’s get to work,” to heart. Appointed just a month before the […]

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January 25, 2011

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Posted January 25, 2011

Members of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s elite education transition team took his campaign slogan, “Let’s get to work,” to heart. Appointed just a month before the new governor’s Jan. 4 inauguration, the 18-member team held a series of lengthy, evening teleconferences over three weeks to craft proposed elements for Scott’s education agenda. Along with Don Pemberton, who directs the Lastinger Center for Learning at UF’s College of Education, other transition team members included the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. Schools (Michelle Rhee), the chancellor of the State University System of Florida (Frank Brogan) and the president of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (Julio Fuentes). Scott’s charge to his transition team was to “find innovative ways to create a new education system for a new economy.”He met with the team Dec. 21 in Ft. Lauderdaleto hear their recommendations. Below, Pemberton shares his brief but intensive experiences on the transition team with interviewer Larry Lansford, director of news and communications at UF’s College of Education.(To review the education transition team’s briefing documents, please visit: http://www.scribd.com/ScottTransition.)

Q | Talk about the education transition team’s makeup and how your appointment came about.

DP | It was an intense experience working with a group of 18 education leaders and stakeholders from all walks of life. I knew about a third of them. I had been asked during the campaign to review Scott’s framing document for his education initiatives and provide some input. So I was familiar with his viewpoints and talked with his campaign folks. It was stimulating to join such a strong team and help formulate some new education policies and practices for the state.

Q | What was the team’s purpose and charge?

DP | Innovation was the theme. We were divided into three subgroups—one to focus on pre-K through 12th grade, another on higher education issues and a third group, which I was on, reviewed the role of Florida’s Department of Education. Our charge was to draw up a blueprint for success of our next generation and Gov. Scott was looking for innovation. There were no restrictions on how ambitious or innovative we could be in retooling our educational system and improving the quality of teaching and student learning in our schools.

Q | Was there any political agenda attached to Gov. Scott’s charge or in his transition team appointments?

DP | Well, he provided his framing document that he’d developed for his campaign with his views on education reform. What we mainly heard was a yearning and encouragement for innovation, with no restrictions on our thinking about what it takes for children to become more successful in learning and life. Everyone on the transition team did a good job of leaving their personal agendas at the door. They brought their passion and expertise, but none of us promoted our personal work. We took a broader view.

Q | Were your own political leanings a factor in your appointment?

DP | Nobody asked my politics. I’m an independent anyway. I vote independent and don’t contribute to either party. I’ve been at this for 30 years and have worked with Florida governors from both parties since the days of Lawton Chiles. I simply think many of our state’s education leaders—including some in Gov. Scott’s camp—are familiar with our work at the University of Florida. There is a lot of interest in our university-school-community partnerships, such as our Florida Master Teacher Initiative and our early-learning and school readiness programs. Their interest really confirms the groundbreaking work we’re doing at the College of Education and the Lastinger Center.

Q | What were some of the key outcomes and recommendations in the education transition team’s report to the governor?

DP | Gov. Scott emphasizes deregulation—period—across the board. He believes that too many rules and regulations hinder growth and development. We made the point that our public schools are highly regulated. We’re holding schools to higher levels of accountability and the teacher reform movement these days is all about measuring teacher quality and differentiating teacher compensation based on their student’s achievement scores. All of this is good. But at the same time, you can’t hold teachers accountable if you’re telling them what and when to teach, using some mandated, one-size-fits-all curriculum. So eliminating some of these mandates makes sense.  No one tells a surgeon he has to operate the same way every time on every patient to open up their brains. The same goes for teaching when you’re trying to open up a child’s mind. Teachers have to make adjustments for children at different learning levels.

Q | Any other key recommendations or observations?

DP | The reports from the three subgroups were each about 20 pages, so there were a lot of them. One I’m very excited about is a recommendation to create innovation networks throughout the state school system. We could identify the best teaching practices having the greatest impact on improved teaching and student learning, and bring these teaching strategies to the forefront in every school district.

Q | Can you cite specific innovations the group has in mind?

DP | Several involve teacher reform. The teacher quality movement focuses on developing new methods for assessing teacher quality, and offering more compensation to teachers whose students achieve the highest learning gains, and also rewarding teachers in the more difficult technical fields of science and math. The missing piece of reform, though, has been professional development—helping teachers continually get better at their jobs. The American professional development system for teachers is deeply flawed. It’s the “spray-and-pray” approach. We send teachers to a weekend seminar or two every year and sort of spray them with a sprinkle of information and teaching tips, and then send them home and pray that it sticks. Teachers become demoralized and consider it a waste of precious time outside the classroom. We need to develop a new professional development system for teachers, not only for Florida but the nation. This is another area where the University of Florida is positioned to lead the way with prototype programs like the Master Teacher initiative, which provides on-the-job professional development for practicing teachers, with UF professors-in-residence providing on-site instruction so enrolled teachers can immediately apply what they learn in their classrooms.

Q | What about your subgroup that looked at the role of Florida’s Department of Education? Are any dramatic changes in store there?

DP | Some may not call this dramatic, but one recommendation was to rename it the Department of Education Innovation. We don’t know if legalities would prevent that. Renaming, by itself, may seem like a cosmetic move, but it reflects a mindset or value that innovation should always be at the forefront of education and not accepting the status quo. The state must continuously strive to improve teaching and learning. Our message is to reinvent the role of the education department and state government as being fearless and courageous and continually looking for and sharing new ideas for improving our education system and championing the work of innovators.

Q | What now? Is the transition team’s work done?

DP | We hope to have a continuing role in supporting Gov. Scott’s vision of education reform, especially relating to the development of new models for the most effective teaching practices and improving teacher quality and student learning, especially in our most vulnerable schools.

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(DON PEMBERTON is the founding director of the Lastinger Center for Learning, part of UF’s College of Education. The center works to develop master teachers, create effective early-childhood learning models, mobilize communities to improve child wellbeing, and establish racial equity in public schools. It links more than 300 partnering schools across Florida with UF scholars in multiple disciplines, forming powerful learning communities.)

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CONTACTS

SOURCE: Don Pemberton, director, UF Lastinger Center for Learning, dpemberton@coe.ufl.edu

WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education, llansford@coe.ufl.edu