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Emotional Winn defends his work

The former state education chief says he wasn't forced out by Crist.

By RON MATUS
Published January 17, 2007


CLEARWATER - In his first public remarks since abruptly announcing his resignation last week, former Education Commissioner John Winn offered a sweeping defense Tuesday of the school accountability policies he helped shape.

At times animated, at times fighting back tears, Winn said rampant social promotion continues to be the "escape hatch" that "allows us to be less than we should be." He said critics are guilty of "misplaced compassion."

They "do it with a good heart, with a full heart, a caring heart," said Winn, 58, who has handpicked by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004. "But a stupid heart."

Winn's talk came before the state's new dropout-prevention task force, which was holding its first meeting at the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa.

Afterward, Winn told the St. Petersburg Times that contrary to speculation, he was not forced out by new Gov. Charlie Crist and had, in fact, made the decision to step down before Crist recalled the appointments of two Bush loyalists to the state Board of Education.

Winn said he wanted to let Crist put his mark on Florida's education system. He also said he feared his hard-charging style could become a distraction and "marginalize my effectiveness."

As an example, he noted that the majority of schools now earn A grades from the state, through the controversial school-grading system he helped design.

"We got 2,000 A schools out there. It's probably time to raise the bar," Winn said. "But I'm not sure the appetite's out there."

"Maybe people are tired of being pushed for a while. But I'm still in a mood to push."

Leaving his mark

A former teacher, Winn became the state's top education official after 20 years of rising through the ranks at the Education Department. As a high-level staffer and later as a Bush policy adviser, Winn helped shape the test-driven policies that radically overhauled Florida schools through Bush's eight years in office.

His fingerprints are all over high-stakes use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to grade schools, retain third-graders and award teacher bonuses - all policies that polls show are unpopular with most Floridians.

Tuesday's wide-ranging remarks were delivered with an emotional edge, offering a sharp contrast to the public perception of Winn - who has a visual impairment - as a steely number cruncher.

High school dropouts "don't have to always be with us," he told the 17 task force members, saying the best way to prevent kids from dropping out is to provide "quality education for all."

The state's intense focus on reading and math in elementary school has led to Florida having some of the biggest gains on national tests in the country. That early success is key, Winn said, in keeping kids from developing the "loser" complexes that lead them to act out as they get older.

Not afraid of working

He said he can relate. When he was a kid, he often got picked last when kids split themselves into teams for sports. One year, he said, he sold popcorn for his physical education teacher instead of facing the daily sting from his peers.

"I found a way to do something meaningful for myself, and we are all like that," Winn told the task force. "It's a basic human survival instinct."

"Forget FCAT," he continued. "Failing every day, 180 days a year. How does that feel? ... It hurts."

Eliminating social promotion - the practice of moving students along even if they aren't performing at grade level -would force change, too, he said.

Right now, it's an outlet that allows students, teachers and parents to feel good about themselves when anemic test scores show work needs to be done.

"If there was no social promotion, holy cow, holy cow, what would we do?" he said. "I tell you what we'd do. We'd do a lot better."

After his address, Winn shed more light on his future, saying he's thinking of becoming an education consultant and writing a book. Meanwhile, he'll be watching how Crist reshapes education policies.

Crist said during the campaign that he would both stick with Bush's accountability program and be more flexible. Some Bush supporters wonder whether flexibility means retreat.

Asked whether he was worried about a change in direction, Winn said, "Of course I am."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.