The term “Common Core” registered little excitement, or interest, in Florida when the state adopted the new learning standards three years ago.
But it’s now a hot topic among educators, legislators and others, as school districts prepare to put the new standards in place in all grades.
“All of a sudden, it’s kind of hit. It’s becoming more real,” said Diana Fedderman, director of secondary education for the Palm Beach County School District.
Teachers are cramming at summer training “institutes,” top Florida decision-makers are grappling with how and when to begin testing students, and parents are being bombarded with reports — both positive and negative — about what Common Core will look like in classrooms.
And those parents are now inundating the Palm Beach County School Board, and even county commissioners, with questions and concerns about just what the standards mean.
Cheryl Alligood, the district’s chief academic officer, said she understands there are plenty of unknowns. A May 2012 poll by the nonprofit group Achieve — which pushes for “college and career-readiness” for students — found that only about 20 percent of voters in states planning to put Common Core in place knew “some” or “a lot” about the new standards.
That leaves Alligood and others waging a public relations battle against conservative activists fearful the new standards are a federal government-driven push.
“Part of our job is to educate and look at the misinformation,” Alligood said, adding that the district is shifting into overdrive to get the word out.
It has posted a page on its website with links and information about the new standards, which will replace Florida’s current ones in English language arts and math. Also, individual schools have been either hosting information sessions or talking with parents to help them feel more comfortable about the changes.
And in the coming weeks, the district plans to send emails to parents of its 178,000 students detailing the “myths and facts” of the Common Core State Standards.
Critics suspect loss of local control
But even as the district works to get the word out, so too is a group of county residents upset about Common Core. And both are trying to be the first to reach people who haven’t yet learned about the standards.
A Facebook page created in April called Parents Against Common Core Palm Beach County, which has nearly 80 “likes,” says it is dedicated to “stopping Common Core in Palm Beach County as well as on the state level.”
“Common Core is wrong for this country and wrong for Palm Beach County,” said Julie Mauck, a Wellington parent and member of the Facebook group. “Common Core is a takeover of our children’s education by the federal government and special-interest groups that replaces local control and parental involvement.”
Mauck said she is concerned the standards will allow “big business and federal bureaucrats to dictate every facet of our children’s education.” She has spoken at school board meetings to urge board members to break with the state and not carry out Common Core.
Like Mauck, some county residents have warned that the new standards aren’t rigorous enough — a characterization that district staff members dispute. Other concerns include worries the standards will dictate too much of what a teacher can teach, create too much testing and cost too much to adopt.
These Common Core detractors, their concerns being spread in part by the popularity of conservative pundits such as talk-show host Glenn Beck, have caught the attention of educators and others pushing for the new standards.
“It wakes me up at night, the reality of how little people understand,” state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan said during a May board meeting. “We’re lost in fighting this battle of the standards. If you listen to talk radio and anything else that’s out there, this wave is coming to kill Common Core.”
But some, including business and conservative groups, have begun a counterattack. Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education think tank, the Foundation for Education Excellence, has teamed with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to create a website called “Conservatives for Higher Standards” to promote Common Core.
In Palm Beach County, Alligood said she has spent time watching online videos against Common Core — “Glenn Beck has a lot of videos,” she said — and reading up on the standards so that she can address any questions or concerns, and dispute anything she thinks is misleading.
“All we can do is openly share information,” Alligood said, adding that district staff has met one-on-one with certain anti-Common Core commenters. “They’re entitled to their opinion.”
State, not federal, officials pushed standards
The standards were proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — rather than the Obama administration — as uniform benchmarks in math and English to ensure students got similar educations, no matter where they attend public schools. The majority of states have volunteered to sign on to these standards, which concentrate on the skills needed for the workforce and for college.
Florida signed on in 2010. Kindergarten teachers across the state began teaching under the new standards in the 2011-12 school year, and the standards were spread to first-grade classrooms last year.
This school year, Florida teachers are expected to instruct students on a “blended” model, mixing the Common Core standards with some current grade-level ones, since students will continue to be tested using the FCAT this year.
Teachers overall have said they support the new standards. However, the short timeline for putting them in place, and the uncertainty around the assessments being developed, has many — including teachers and district superintendents — on edge.
The state is expected to begin testing under Common Core in the 2014-15 school year, but Florida superintendents have been lobbying to push that timeline back. School districts, they argue, need more time to work the new standards into place, get their technology up to par for online testing and have a better sense of what the tests may look like.
Still, district staff say the first job is getting the word out about Common Core and making sure it’s carried out properly.
“Spending the last few years entrenched in these standards, this is perfect for our kids now,” Fedderman said. She said if students can successfully learn under the new standards, “they’ll be fine on any test.”
Florida still has not made a final decision on which exams it will use when it comes time to test students under the new Common Core State Standards. It had been expected to use onecalled PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) that is being developed by a consortium of nearly two dozen states, including Florida, which is managing the money for the test.
But in recent months, a few states have either pulled out of the PARCC consortium or scaled back their commitment. Some cite costs as a factor, while others are concerned about the amount of testing required of students.
Last week, state Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford sent a letter to Florida’s education commissioner urging that he pull the state out of the PARCC consortium, and also delay the start of testing under Common Core. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett is still weighing Florida’s options.
— Allison Ross