While the state government keeps pushing the Common Core State Standards for Florida's students, it's causing both sides to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the education initiative, which is set to be fully implemented in all grades in the 2014-2015 academic year.
The Common Core State Standards is a national education initiative to make the learning of language arts, history, and mathematics more consistent across the country. States raced to adopt Common Core three years ago during the recession because they were incentivized through the possibility of receiving competitive federal Race to the Top grants.
So far, 45 states and Washington, D.C., have already adopted the standards. Florida plans to fully implement Common Core in all grades in the 2014-2015 academic year.
But while many states were on board with the program three years ago, some have already started to jump ship, with several states considering legislation to slow or delay Common Core. Other states, like Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan have paused the program entirely.
In terms of academics, Common Core is much more rigorous than Florida's current academic standards, which have already caused controversy for being too tough. Superintendents from Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties recently voiced concerns that schools in their districts and around the state would receive failing grades due to tougher testing standards, prompting a full investigation of Florida's grading system by a state-led task force.
On June 27, the Republican Party of Lake County held a forum in Tavares, Fla., to discuss the pros and cons of the educational initiative. Locals voiced their concerns about the Common Core at the meeting, saying the standards were adopted in "the dead of night" without any input from teachers or parents.
When talking about Common Cores implementation, chief watchdog at Fiscal Watchdogs, Vance Jochim, told Sunshine State News, The state did it without any real input from public hearing or parents in 2010. Once the [state] bought into it then the school districts were required to implement it.
Jochim also mentioned theres a lot of misinformation going around about Common Core and many administrators and elected officials who cant explain the program or respond to the opposition to Common Core very well.
What Ive found is that the administrators and the elected officials are clueless about all the opposition reasons, began Jochim. The staff and the administration, unlike a good salesman who researches, have no clue. That makes people angrier because they talk to these elected officials and they all voted for these people and they dont know anything [about Common Core].
Jochim isnt a parent or a member of any school board -- he told Sunshine State News he speaks out against Common Core because he just wants to see transparency in all public activities.
But while opponents of Common Core say transparency is a huge weakness for the initiative, proponents for Common Core disagree and say transparency is a huge positive of the initiative.
Allison Aubuchon, deputy communications director for the Foundation for Floridas Future, said the biggest strength of Common Core is its transparency.
[Common Core] increases transparency and accountability in education, said Aubuchon. Theres potential for added transparency to compare data from state to state, which we have never done before.
Aubuchon told SSN that in addition to comparing student data, teachers from across the country will also benefit from Common Core because they will be able to learn from each other due to their academic standards being the same.
Beyond transparency, Vance Jochim says data privacy for students is another huge issue at the heart of Common Core, and opponents to Common Core strongly advocate against inappropriate student data collection that would take place under the new standards.
Marion County Republican Executive Committee Chair Randy Osborne reassured panel members and the public that the Florida Legislature had voted against mass data mining.
We fought three months to defeat it, and we did defeat it, said Osborne.
Common Core's opposition has reached all the way to various members of the GOP. Three Florida congressmen -- Richard Nugent, Trey Radel and Ted Yodel -- joined 31 other Republican representatives to sign a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying states had been coerced into choosing the standards by the federal government.
In terms of academic content, the Foundation for Floridas Future says Common Core will provide students with a deeper thinking process, rather than having them just crunching numbers.
A key difference between the old state standards and Common Core is that students are expected to read higher quality and more challenging books in earlier grades than they were before. These standards push students to understand increasingly difficult text and vocabulary, and are designed to embed reading, writing, listening and speaking expectations in other content areas such as history, social studies, the sciences and career-technical education.
But while Floridas state standards and the Common Core look dramatically different, it is still up to the districts to decide how the standards would play out in the classroom, as curriculum is not mandated by Common Core.
But Vance Jochim says that even though the districts are allowed to provide their own spin on the curriculum, teachers may find teaching their own way may not be so easy, due to a merit-pay system that will require them to teach to an assessment test different from the FCAT. Each state gets to choose what kind of test their students will take. Floridas currently on track to change its statewide test from the FCAT to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers test, which fully assesses student performance and the full range of Common Core standards and determines whether students are ready for college or a career.
In Florida, the FCAT will eventually be replaced, said Aubuchon. In Tennessee they have their own test. [If] they choose the PARCC test, the standards would be similar and [they would have] an identical exam, she said. Florida is on track to change to the PARCC exam.
Jochim warned about testing and its impact, hinting that teachers may not know what theyre getting themselves into just yet.
Testing will define schools, began Jochim. [The teachers] get all these standards and these books [to teach from], but as a consequence they will find out that to get good test scores, theyre going to have to use these books and adhere to the Common Core. Teachers get merit pay from how their students rank on the test.
He also explained that with new standards will come a whole new set of textbooks that schools will be required to buy because they will be required to teach to the Common Core. The Common Core State Standards also advocate implementing technology and having students take online tests, which would require some districts spending lots of money to purchase computers.
Having students who are familiar with technology, according to Aubuchon, is important to make sure theyre competitive with students all over the world academically so they can go out into the workforce later on in life.
That, she says, is the biggest reason behind Common Core.
Our students are entering a rapidly changing world and it is much more competitive, she said. We need to make sure our workforce is prepared. The strength of our country is going to be determined not only by the economy, but by our students -- and it will be affected by our quality of education. To be successful, we need to make sure we are stepping it up so they can be the leaders of tomorrow.
Jochim and others believe Florida shouldnt been so keen on rushing into the Common Core standards, though.
I think there are enough questions to delay it, said Jochim. I question the need to rush into mandating an all-electronic test and violating states rights. States shouldnt be blackmailed into accepting [the program].
The best case scenario, according to Jochim, would be getting the federal government out of the program entirely. The best case would be to get the feds out and make the program optional and allow the states to modify it, he said. But theres a copyright on it, so you cant change it.
Teachers from across the state are currently being taught how to implement the Common Core standards, which will be in all grades by 2014.
Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.