COVER STORY

Problems at the Core

Common Core education standards are thrown into question by last-minute politicking

Badass Teacher Association founding member Donna Mace said she worries that the Common Core language arts and math standards, and the resulting teaching strategies, may not be developmentally appropriate for younger students.
Dennis Ho
"In Florida, as always, my concern is the implementation, that it will be politicized and twisted into something it was never intended to be," parent and education advocate Colleen Wood said of the Common Core.
Dennis Ho
Gov. Rick Scott, following tea party complaints about federal government overreach, withdrew Florida from participating in PARCC, the multi-state group developing the tests aligned to the Common Core. At this writing, there is no inkling that Florida will withdraw from the 2009 CCSS compact.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush has led the effort to bring the Common Core standards to Florida. On Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future website, the new set of academic objectives are described as "fewer, higher and clearer."
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Few issues draw as much scrutiny from citizens — or as much controversy — as public education.

Parents and other stakeholders watched as two debacles relating to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) occurred in as many years. Floridians also witnessed less-than-stellar research results for poor students in charter schools and the resignation of three state education commissioners — all under one governor.

Now, a set of academic standards that is slated to take full force during the 2014-'15 school year in Florida, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), has emerged as the latest education lightning rod.

Everyone, it seems, has chimed in on CCSS, which the Florida Department of Education adopted in 2010 and began implementing in 2011. Florida's League of Women Voters, the Florida PTA and the Florida Education Association (FEA) are on record favoring the new learning benchmarks. The FEA, however, voted at its convention on Oct. 12 to appoint a teacher-led task force to monitor implementation of the standards and make recommendations for changes.

Proponents say that common standards, and an accompanying common test, will allow states to compare student achievement in an apples-to-apples manner.

Meanwhile, the tea party, parent advocacy organizations and the newly minted Badass Teachers Association (BATs) have found common ground — with overlapping and differing reasons — in opposing the new standards' implementation (hrld.us/18ZxDF1). The BATs held their own meeting at the FEA convention on Oct. 11. "We're a democratic organization," FEA President Andy Ford said. "The delegates can change their minds if that's what they want to do."

While the FEA did not change its position generally supporting the Common Core, sources say that the BATs' concerns regarding CCSS implementation resonated broadly with FEA members. New business items approved at the convention reflect teachers' desire to "slow down the bullet train," Ford said, referring to CCSS and the yet-to-be determined corresponding test. The state teachers' union also expressed a desire to allow districts the option of using paper-and-pencil tests until the infrastructure, i.e., computer technology for testing under CCSS, is fully implemented across the state.

At the center of the storm is Gov. Rick Scott who, following tea party complaints about federal government overreach, withdrew Florida from participating in the multi-state group PARCC, which is developing the tests aligned to the Common Core. (The testing partnership is not to be confused with the 45-state Common Core compact.) The Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) is an 18-state consortium that received $186 million in federal Race to the Top funds to measure student learning under the new Common Core learning goals. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama endorse the partnership's work.

And that endorsement might spell trouble for the Common Core. Obama has publicly embraced former Gov. Jeb Bush's education policies, praising him in a speech at a Miami high school in 2011. This alliance gives conservatives, including columnist Michelle Malkin, the opportunity to use broad strokes to paint Bush as favoring "Big Government" and "Big Business." Malkin has tied Bush to the testing/textbook/curriculum/technology conglomerate Pearson, which now holds Florida's FCAT vendor contract
(bit.ly/GARqlM).

As Bush finds himself defending the Common Core State Standards to critics on his right, as he did with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in August (huff.to/18ZwjSv), the furor threatens to drown out teachers' concerns about the effects of high-stakes testing on students.

"It comes with more than just standards. The high-stakes testing comes with it — it's a package," Badass Teacher Association founding member Donna Mace told Folio Weekly.


What Is the Common Core?

The Common Core is a set of uniform, interchangeable academic goals, or "standards," which are intended to be used across grades and subject areas from state to state. Having common benchmarks, and a common way to measure student learning under those benchmarks, would enable cross-state comparisons of student achievement which, proponents say, is essential to improving the nation's schools. Currently, the standards — i.e., what educators want students to know — have been developed for reading/language arts and math. Proponents point out that curricula — the tools and strategies of teaching in line with core standards — are to be developed by local school districts. Reading informational texts, under Common Core, crosses into the domains of science and social studies as well (bit.ly/RolloutTimeline).

"You have to have a common assessment," said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent for Duval County Public Schools. Vitti said he's a "big proponent" of the CCSS and its aligned testing instrument — whatever that turns out to be. "It ensures equity of high standards across subjects and across grade levels."

The multi-state partnership to develop CCSS began in 2009. Forty-eight states, two U.S. territories and the District of Columbia signed the CCSS compact, which was sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Bush has led the effort to bring the Common Core standards to Florida. On Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future website (bit.ly/18ZyKoc), the new set of academic objectives are described as "fewer, higher and clearer." The website says that CCSS was "developed by experienced educators, leaders and experts nationwide" and "are benchmarked to top performing schools around the world."

Writing for the New York Times Science News section (nyti.ms/18Zz9XF), Kenneth Chang elaborated on the "fewer, higher and clearer" aspects of the Common Core: "By cutting back on a hodgepodge of topics, and delving deeper into central concepts, the hope is that children will understand it better."

Math, for example, is taught in a bottom-up manner that requires students to internalize concepts. Chang cited, for example, kindergartners' historic difficulty learning the numbers between 10 and 20. Common Core makes sure they know the "teen" (i.e., the "1") goes before the "4" when writing 14 — and not that they can simply recite the string of numbers.

Teachers begin with student input or "entry points" on math problems and "guide" or "facilitate" students toward the correct answer. The tea party seized on the "bottom-up" nature of Common Core teaching when it excerpted for its website an Ohio teacher's coaching session on the topic. Taking a snippet of the video out of context, the right wing group concluded, "under ObamaMath, three times four equals 11" (bit.ly/GCQJbS).

Tea party members aren't the only ones concerned with math standards. In a document obtained by Folio Weekly, a group of Florida parents, Opt Out of State Standardized Tests — Florida, noted that the manner in which questions are phrased to students in fourth grade make the test more about reading comprehension than math. They're concerned that the homework, as presented in PARCC workbooks now coming home with their children, will be inscrutable to parents who might not know the difference between estimating, rounding and calculating.

Parent and education advocate Colleen Wood is also uneasy about how CCSS is being implemented. Wood, who founded 50th No More, is the former executive director of Save Duval Schools and currently serves on the board for Diane Ravitch's group, the Network for Public Education.

"In Florida, as always, my concern is the implementation, that it will be politicized and twisted into something it was never intended to be," Wood said.

A Badass Teacher Speaks Out

"The name is not open for discussion," Donna Mace, a Duval County fifth-grade teacher at Chimney Lakes Elementary, told Folio Weekly, referring to the BATs.

The 34-year veteran teacher is a founding member of BATs. According to Mace, the group, which uses social media to spread its message, attracted 26,000 members over the course of its inaugural two months. The mission is to "reduce excess testing, increase teacher autonomy and include teacher-family voices in legislative processes that affect students."

Mace said she worries that the math and language arts standards, and the resulting teaching strategies, might not be developmentally appropriate for younger students.

"Their brains aren't ready yet. I don't think it's necessary for the little guys to grasp algebra yet. It's OK to save that for a few years."

This fall, Vitti acknowledged the developmental difficulties faced by young students when he suspended testing in science, art and music for students in the early grades. Facing a number of grievances filed this year by the union, Duval Teachers United, Vitti relented on the number of tests for K-2 students, citing the burden it places on teachers (bit.ly/GCRjGu). He also acknowledged that this year there are more "frontloaded" tests, which are aimed at gauging students' starting points at the beginning of the year, as well as more interim assessments.

Most tests being used in Duval this fall are Curriculum Guide Assessments (CGAs). Duval County teachers developed the CGAs after they were tasked with writing curriculum guides that incorporated Florida's Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSS).

"Florida's standards are already more aligned to the Common Core than the average state's," Vitti said.

"They're very close," Mace acknowledged. Currently, students in grades 3-12 are being taught a blended curriculum based on both Common Core and NGSS standards. Grades K-2 are using Common Core exclusively
(bit.ly/RolloutTimeline).

But Mace said it's not the standards per se that bother her most. "A lot of it is what good teachers have always done. I'm not fearful of all this ‘go deeper;' that's fine."

What's not fine, she said, is the testing.

"We're using the test inappropriately. They weren't always so high-stakes. The difference is how we're using them now, to label schools, to grade students."

Mace said she worries that the narrow focus on reading, language arts and math will prevent many students leaving elementary school from being able to take interesting electives in middle school. To a fifth-grader who has a "bad day" on test day, she said, "Too bad. You won't get to take certain subjects."

Instead, students who don't make the cutoff will be placed in remedial classes, which is a punitive move because those students will lose time for electives. For some students, that can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

"Kids lose what makes school fun," Mace said.

Mace also echoed Florida teachers who have objected to tying half of their performance evaluations to student scores on high-stakes tests — including whatever test comes along to measure Common Core learning.

"Now we're evaluating teachers on [the tests] — even basing their salaries on it," she said. "We don't know it's valid. We don't get to see it. Parents don't get to see it. We just take someone's word for it. It's scary."

As a young social studies teacher in North Carolina, Vitti said he began his career under the accountability paradigm and doesn't know anything else.

"What is not measured is often not done," he said.

"The pressure on children is horrible," Mace countered. "This is a child's life getting determined way too early, and I can't even look at it [the test]."

Teaching to the Test?

Mace said that the pressure of high-stakes testing, whether it comes from FCAT or a Common Core instrument, cuts into the "teachable moments" that students and teachers both relish in the classroom.

"It impacts being able to stay on something longer because the students are interested. I can't help them explore because I have to move on," Mace said. "You never know who's going to spark on what."

As mother to two children who attend St. Johns County schools, Wood agreed. Her children are two school grades apart but, with the advent of the Common Core, have had vastly different experiences with the same teacher in the same subject. While the older sibling enjoyed three days of class time to write and produce a play, for example, the younger child's class was given only one half-hour.

"We talk all the time about how we want creativity, collaboration, out-of-the-box thinking," Wood said. "But we seem to be moving to a system that doesn't allow time for that."

Vitti empathized with Wood's point. 
"As a teacher, I loved to talk about the 
post-reconstruction period," he said. "But I knew I had to get to World War I. It's always about pacing."

Ford, however, said there's more than just pacing to worry about. "We're focusing on the [summative] test, so we're backing up trying to predict performance with interim tests, and that takes away from instruction."

Vitti said he understands that there is a "degree of angst" among teachers. When he was principal of Homestead Middle School in Miami-Dade County, Vitti essentially banned talking about the FCAT as a way to avoid feeding that angst.

"I'm not going to talk about the test," he said. "I'm going to talk about teaching kids. If we teach this, we don't have to worry about the test, because they're going to be great."

Vitti noted that schools and states can't compare themselves to each other if the standards are different. Wood agreed on that point and said that CCSS is "very important" to her friends in the military who move from state to state. Vitti added that numerous sets of state standards could hurt our nation in the global economy.

"We're one of only a few industrialized countries that don't have a national curriculum," he said.

"I want the Common Core to come, and I want a Common Core assessment because I want to show the nation that Duval County … apples to apples … that our kids are going to be better prepared," Vitti added.

Gov. Scott and Tea Party Politics

The objections from the right registered with Gov. Scott, who, in an executive order issued Sept. 23, embraced the idea of "high standards" while decrying "federal intrusion" into public education, which is a state and local domain. Scott, in a one-page statement on his official website, used the phrase "high standards" four times (bit.ly/GCT1aP).

"We agree that we should say ‘yes' to high standards for Florida students and ‘no' to the federal government's overreach into our education system," the statement said. "Therefore, I notified the federal government that Florida would be withdrawing from PARCC, and at the same time we will hold public comment sessions to receive input on any alterations that should be made to the current Common Core Standards."

So why, at the culmination of 15 years of education "reform," led largely by former governor Bush, would Scott now pull the plug on the assessment portion of CCSS in Florida?

"The tea party opposes Common Core, period," Ford observed. "The governor is taking a middle step" in keeping CCSS while dumping PARCC.

Scott's executive order disengaging Florida from the Common Core's test developer, PARCC, came five days after a resolution issued by the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Republican party on Sept. 18, which rejected both the Common Core Standards and the testing that goes with it (bit.ly/GCTqdz).

Federal intrusion concerns raised by the tea party have been answered by the Bush camp, which has pointed out that states voluntarily joined the now-45-state CCSS compact, which excludes Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia (bit.ly/CCSScompact).

"Common Core is not federal. It's national. It's states coming together," Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, told Marc Caputo for his Naked Politics blog (bit.ly/GCTcTB).

At this writing, there is no inkling that the state of Florida will withdraw from the 2009 CCSS compact.

Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

One concern about the Common Core that unites tea partiers and teachers alike is the profit-driven nature of some education-reform tenets, as noted by Malkin.

Another is the worry about "data-mining," or using personal student data needed to track progress for illicit or commercial purposes.

"Who knows what they're going to do with it later?" Mace asked, worrying that test data could harm students as they apply for colleges or jobs in the future.

She also sees the likelihood that test-and-technology developers will use personal data to market programs to parents that are tailored to their children's needs.

"It's all profit-driven," she said.

Conservatives have also expressed concerns about data-mining and privacy, most outlandishly as a run-up to the Miami GOP resolution against the Common Core, as reported by Caputo and McGrory: "There are sensors being contemplated to put them on children at public schools," Miami Republican Frank DeVarona said. "Sensors, cameras looking at your face … a bracelet to measure your blood flow. It sounds like ‘1984' George Orwell kind of stuff."

The Miami GOP resolution was passed Sept. 17, two months after Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent a letter to Florida's former Education Commissioner Tony Bennett. In the July 17 letter, Gaetz and Weatherford cited Florida's technology infrastructure deficits, too many testing days and slow teacher-feedback loops among other reasons for rejecting the test that would emerge from PARCC (bit.ly/GCUhuF). Two days later, Bush published an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times, hinting that the PARCC-developed assessments may "not be the right path for Florida" (bit.ly/GCUm1r).

On July 24, a petition originating with the Koch-brothers-bankrolled Americans for Prosperity showed up on the Gainesville Tea Party's website, "Help Stop Common Core and PARCC" (bit.ly/GCUoGs).

A month after that, Scott's statewide education "summit" in Clearwater convened, albeit without Scott. Tea partiers reportedly aired their numerous concerns to Florida Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand during the Clearwater meeting, which was held Aug. 26-28.

Chartrand was subsequently quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as opposing the "far right's" attempt to censor reading materials under the Common Core over concerns about "homosexuality" and "socialism" 
(bit.ly/GCUxtJ).

Following the summit and Chartrand's statement, a pow-wow ensued in the form of a private Miami dinner, with Scott, Bush, Chartrand and Northeast Florida Sen. John Thrasher in attendance (hrld.us/GCUEp1).


What’s Next?

A PARCC-developed test could still be in the running to win Florida's contract, but as of this writing, it's anybody's guess as to what test Florida will decide to use. The movements of a former Bush gubernatorial aide, who ascended through the Florida Department of Education before becoming an executive at Pearson, may or may not be indicative. William Piferrer joined the testing conglomerate in 2007, the year before Pearson won Florida's $250 million FCAT vendor contract. In 2012, Piferrer moved from Pearson to CTB McGraw; the two companies had been competitors in the 2008 bid for the five-year FCAT contract. CTB McGraw is a subcontractor for ETS, as a part of ETS's bid to the PARCC consortium for testing/technology products. While Pearson, in partnership with Smarter Balanced, won the contract to assess technology needs for Common Core assessments, Pearson and 
ETS have submitted competing bids to PARCC for test-item development (bit.ly/GCV3HZ).

It's unknown whether a new "Florida" test is already in the bag, or if not, whether it could be developed in time for the 2014-'15 implementation deadline. Will the new test get pushed back for a year or more?

At least two Florida lawmakers have introduced bills that try to address these questions. Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel (D-Maitland) wants to suspend testing 
next year to give Florida lawmakers time 
to get a handle on which test will be used 
(bit.ly/18ZLyuN). Rep. Debbie Mayfield (R-Vero Beach) also wants to suspend testing, but is more concerned about states' rights issues, and appears to reject both the Common Core State Standards as well as the PARCC-developed exam (bit.ly/15X3bcy).

Wood agreed that Florida should hit the pause button.

"If this is really about raising standards, and not about a profit-driven motive to fail schools, then pausing is the only option," she said.

"What we see from these legislative proposals is a concern that we're not ready for this," Ford said. "We don't have the infrastructure. We don't have the research."

A Florida DOE website portal (bit.ly/GCT1aP), asking for public input and advertising the three public meetings to be held on the Common Core State Standards, studiously avoids using the words "Common Core." (See bit.ly/GCSMfS for more information about the Oct. 15, 16 and 17 meetings.) Florida policymakers might be taking notes from Arizona Education Superintendent John Huppenthal, who has changed the name of that state's adopted standards from "Common Core" to "Arizona College and Career Ready" standards (bit.ly/GCVmCM). Utah, similarly, calls its standards the Utah Common Core. Will these various state-named exams (ARCC? FARCC? UARCC?) share enough fungible items to make the state-to-state comparisons that Common Core proponents say are essential to improving the nation's schools?

The larger uncertainty is whether a division has occurred, or will occur, between Scott and Bush on education (bit.ly/GCVnXa). Scott, who won the governor's office by 1 percentage point during the 2010 tea party sweep, faces a gubernatorial election in 2014. Bush, according to some pundits, might run for president in 2016 on his most prominent platform plank, education reform.

Do the current tea party governor and the more moderate Republican former governor need each other politically? Given the gerrymandered districts that put most tea party conservatives in office, many of them could recreate the events of 2010 by appealing to the ideologically extreme voters who tend to come out during primaries. General elections in these districts have been rendered irrelevant by rigged maps. This is not the case for Scott's election, however, as his is a non-gerrymandered statewide race.

Bush's 15-year crusade on education in Florida — much to the chagrin of grassroots parent advocacy groups and teachers — has brought school grades, privatization and an emphasis on high-stakes testing. Will Bush's marquee issue now be subject to the machinations that are sure to emerge during the next legislative session?

Vitti has some words of advice for lawmakers and the Florida Board of Education as they determine their next steps.

"Whatever we do in Florida, we have to be consistent in our next steps. We have to stop changing standards every other year," he said.

"We're eroding the public trust that those [test] results mean anything," he added. "Let's keep things consistent for long enough to determine whether kids are learning at a higher level or not."

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