Florida adopting nationwide education standards
Florida's schools are adopting uniform academic standards shared with most other states, but the move is not creating the kind of uproar that's surrounded some other major changes in public education.
Common Core State Standards, which are designed to help American children compete with their peers around the world, are getting mostly high marks from Florida's teachers, administrators and politicians alike. Forty-five states, the District of Columbia and three territories are adopting the standards, which cover kindergarten through high school.
Supporters say the standards are designed to align with college and work expectations in a global economy.
To be sure, there is some angst, but it's mostly over how to meet the state's goal of getting them fully phased in over the next 20 months.
"It's the implementation, it's the structure, it's the timing," Pinellas County School Superintendent Mike Grego recently told the State Board of Education. "There's no resistance."
Florida and its new education commissioner, Indiana's outgoing state schools chief Tony Bennett, have been leaders in the initiative.
While serving as a measuring stick, they'll give schools and teachers wider latitude for developing curriculum to help students learn what's required than currently allowed by the Sunshine State standards.
"My first thought was, `Gee, that's the way I was taught to teach back in the `70s,'" said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
The statewide teachers union has been at odds with Republican governors and the GOP-controlled Legislature over such issues as private school vouchers, class size limits and the use of student test scores to determine everything from school grades and teacher evaluation, but the FEA is supportive of the common core approach.
"It tells you what you need to teach but not how to teach it, so it gives me back the power to say `OK, this is where I want my kids to go,'" said Margaret Goodwin, who teaches third-graders at Westgate Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
Melissa Stokes, a fourth grade teacher at Yulee Elementary School in northeast Florida, also is looking forward to the new standards.
"It's better for not just the teacher, but it's even more crucial for the students," Stokes said.
The standards will be particularly helpful in military communities such as Yulee that have a rapid turnover of students. Stokes said children transferring from out of state often haven't learned the skills required in Florida.
That's just a bonus, said state Public Schools Chancellor Pam Stewart, who's also serving as interim commissioner until Bennett arrives in mid-January.
The new standards in math and language arts aren't as broad as the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards they are replacing, but are deeper. Students will study fewer ideas and facts, but they'll be expected to know more about those they do study. That's intended to make them think and solve problems rather than be "spoon-fed what they are learning," Stewart said.
For example, Florida's current ninth-grade language arts standard simply calls for students to compare and contrast elements in multiple reading texts. A comparable common core standard says students should be able to "compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place or character and a historical event of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history."
Common standards will make state-to-state test score comparisons "more apples to apples" than ever before, Stewart said, but most importantly they will require students to learn skills, knowledge and abilities they'll need after they leave high school.
The new standards, though, will require new tests. That will mean an end to the much-criticized Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but not to the debate over high-stakes testing.
"Some people are falling into the anything's better than the FCAT, but I'm not there," said union president Ford. "I'm a little leery of trying to replace one bad program with another."
Ford also is among those who have questioned the fast pace at which the new standards are being implemented and the lack of a pilot program to try them out first.
The standards went into effect for kindergarten and first grade classes this school year. Next year, they'll be fully implemented in kindergarten through second grade and partially in effect for third through 12th grade. In 2014-15, they'll be in force for all grades.
Stewart said that unlike the new exams, which are being field tested, there's no need to put the standards through a pilot program because they've been vetted by experts. That includes national teachers union representatives.
The standards are the handiwork of an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Pearson Foundation have helped fund the effort. The latter is affiliated with British publishing and education giant Pearson PLC, parent of a firm that administers and scores the FCAT under a state contract.
Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are raising questions about how much it's going to cost.
Stewart told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that federal grants will cover expenses for the next budget year, including $134.6 million for teacher professional development and $49.6 million for other aspects of the transition. The state conducted teacher training sessions this summer and will do the same next year.
That may not be enough, Pasco County School Superintendent Kurt Browning recently told the State Board of Education. Browning said he's worried the Department of Education isn't moving quickly and robustly enough to help school districts meet a fast-approaching deadline for full implementation.
The biggest cost is expected to be for replacing the FCAT in 2014-15. Money currently spent on the FCAT would be shifted to the new exams, but state education officials have not yet estimated how much more they may cost.
The tests are being developed by a 23-state consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers. Florida is the partnership's fiscal agent and Bennett is on PARCC's governing board. It has received a $186 million federal "Race to the Top" grant to develop the exams but costs of administering them will be left to the states.
The tests will be more complex but also more realistic, for example asking students to read a series of passages and draw conclusions instead of simply answering multiple choice questions.
"Very seldom in real life am I asked to respond to a multiple choice, but I'm very often asked to respond to something that I've read," Stewart said.
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