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Florida's FCAT Responses Include a Stress on Public Relations

In an upcoming story for Education Week, I focus on high-stakes standardized testing and how it is changing in several states. Naturally enough, I highlighted Florida, where the 4th-grade writing scores on its high-stakes FCAT assessment took a tremendous tumble this year after the standards for grading the test changed. Part of the story in Florida and other states (such as Texas, Michigan and Kentucky) is not just trying to calibrate the tests to new standards, but also to anticipate and react to bad headlines and sour reactions from parts of the public.

Shortly after it released the scores, the Florida education department announced a new "call center" for parents to discuss the FCAT, a "Just for Parents" email address for parents to send questions and comments to regarding the test, and a "Path to Success" website detailing how the state was transitioning to "tougher standards and higher expectations."

On June 3, the Orlando Sentinel published an interesting story by Kathleen Haughney that provides another interesting detail of the state's public relations strategy regarding the FCAT. The focus of the story is actually former Gov. Jeb Bush and his continuing, significant influence in state education policy discussions despite being six years removed from the state's top government job. To buttress her theme, Haughney notes that after the FCAT scores were released in May and caused widespread dismay, staff at the Foundation for Florida's Future, an education advocacy group where Bush is chairman of the board, met with state department officials in "strategy sessions" to discuss the proper response. (The foundation strongly supports the tougher FCAT standards, and also supports policies like teacher merit pay and tax-credit scholarships.)

Apparently, the foundation staff went so far as to offer the services of a public relations company that the group's executive director, Patricia Levesque, had "worked with through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation."

Those who think the education policy efforts of Bush and the Gates Foundation are suspicious will likely curl their lips at this "synergy" between Bush, Gates and a state education department (although the article doesn't say if the department ultimately chose to hire this unnamed PR firm). But setting that issue aside, this particular detail from Haughney's story shows that states are excruciatingly aware that influencing the public's perception of these tests is critical in dampening the anger and criticism that can threaten to damage what the states believe are legitimate, if painful, steps in the right direction. (The Gates Foundation provides financial support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

An October 2011 Gates Foundation grant to the "Consortium of Florida Education Foundations" was specifically to "help foster teacher voice and support for reform" in the nine districts participating in the Empowering Effective Teachers Project. That project focused in part on the creation of a "value-added" measure for teacher evaluations. Considering the Foundation for Florida's Future's position on teacher evaluation, the idea that the synergy between the two groups would extend to PR is only natural.

One more thing: In addition to the "call center" and a new website, state education commissioner Gerard Robinson announced a "Conversations with the Commissioner" tour where he would have town-hall-style meetings with the public in Jacksonville, Palatka, and Tampa. The FCAT was not specifically mentioned when he announced these meetings, but you can guess what parents gave him "an earful" about (hat tip Tampa Bay Times).

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