By Krista Rinehart, CSG National Leadership Center Coordinator
Sen. Florence Shapiro may have left the classroom, but her dedication to providing a quality education for every student remains a driving force in her service to Texas.
Since joining the Senate in 1993, she has zeroed in on education reform as one of her top priorities. In her opinion, the magic bullet for fixing our nation’s schools is found at the front of the classroom.
“Without a doubt, the number one issue is to have a great teacher in every classroom,” said Shapiro.
“A great teacher in every classroom will be able to adjust to the diversity of their student population; they are able to prepare each student and to individualize their teaching approach. An excellent teacher can do all of this. Teachers are the single most important factor.”
It was the lure of trying to help solve complex problems that drew her to public service. Shapiro’s public service career began when she joined the Plano City Council in 1979. She served as mayor of Plano from 1990-92, before running for state office. At the heart of her desire to run for office was the belief that she could make a difference and help solve her community’s problems.
“The issues that we deal with are very dynamic,” said Shapiro. “The idea that you can actually solve problems is very important to me. A kindergarten student asked me when I was mayor what I did and I said, ‘I solve problems.’”
That continues today.
“I like to think that people bring me problems and I help find solutions,” she said. “I try to bring people together. I like to build consensus as much as possible. I like to look at things from a different slant, from a different perspective rather than just the status quo. We need to look at new and creative ways to solve our problems.”
Shapiro has worked tirelessly to help resolve Texas’ education problems over the years. In 2006, the former teacher pushed to pass House Bill 1, which instituted teacher pay raises and an incentive pay program, along with more money for schools and standards aimed at producing students who are college- and career-ready.
Shapiro supports financial incentives for good teachers, but she doesn’t think getting great teachers is as easy as offering them more money.
“I think every state has to look at teacher incentives and pay scales on its own,” she said. “The financial incentives are important, but in the end there’s a tremendous amount of self-satisfaction that has to motivate teachers. People don’t enter this field to get rich.”
Shapiro believes a return to the days when teachers were respected and venerated rather than blamed is an important step to attract the best and brightest to the profession.
“I think we need to professionalize teaching again,” said Shapiro. “We need to treat teachers as we do any other professional. One size doesn't fit all in in the boardroom and the same goes for the classroom. Teachers are individuals and we marginalize them when we lump them together. They have goals and we need to help them reach those goals.”
Shapiro believes other state leaders have led in education reform, even after they have left office. One example is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
“Even outside his role as an elected official, he has continued to push this issue with his foundation. He was ahead of his time when he made Florida’s reforms and still to this day is as committed to education reform and excellence as he was many years ago,” she said.
But it all comes down to the classroom—that relationship between teacher and student.
“The best part of teaching is feeling like you’ve accomplished something,” said Shapiro. “It’s the respect and admiration that last forever. We need to emphasize this respect and keep it in mind. We need more respect in the classroom and we’ll get more teachers who are doing it for the right reason.”
Attracting great teachers may be a cornerstone in Shapiro’s education strategy, but she also supports the creation of strong standards by which to judge student and teacher success. She believes in setting the bar high and moving it as expectations are met.
“One of the things I have found as we try to maintain a strong focus on education is the need to continuously raise our standards,” said Shapiro. “When President Bush was governor, he said one of the biggest problems was ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ and I agree. I think that says it all. You have to have high standards and expectations.
“Students will reach these high expectations, given the time and the teachers to help them. Our college and career readiness standards are rigorous and will take a while to meet, but we believe in the end our students will be more rounded and better prepared to succeed.”