Education Commissioner Pam Stewart defended proposed changes to the Common Core on Tuesday, saying they will set Florida apart and strengthen the state's academic standards.
Stewart presented the changes and fielded questions from the Board of Education and its meeting in Miami.
The benchmarks for learning in language arts and math were adopted by Florida in 2010 and have been approved by more than 40 other states. The standards were developed by a coalition of state leaders and establish what a student should know to be prepared for college and the workforce.
In Florida and elsewhere, the standards have been criticized as being part of a "federal intrusion" into state education and a strategy to force children to take more high-stakes testing. Much of the criticism has come from conservative activists and the Republican Party of Florida.
"The overriding concern of the members of the Republican Party of Duval County is that we don't know where it comes from, we don't know the bureaucracy of these standards and who is going to implement them," Chairman Rick Hartley said. "Our members are very distrustful of a faceless, nameless bureaucracy, and even the federal government says it's not us. So we don't want to turn over the future of our children to a bureaucracy we can't even identify."
Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the concerns aren't warranted.
"There weren't folks in Washington D.C. in a secret room high atop a building creating these standards," Vitti said. "They were done collaboratively by leaders of all states. So no, I don't think it's a government takeover."
In response to the concerns, however, Gov. Rick Scott ordered hearings on the standards. The state fielded more than 19,000 comments from teachers, parents and others. The result is 99 proposed changes, including 37 clarifications to the current standards, 60 new standards, 52 of which are for calculus, and two deletions.
Stewart told the board the proposed changes are "clearly saying Florida is out on our own, making stronger standards and in an autonomous way." She added the state wanted to send a message that "we were not going to be dictated what our standards would be. And if it was determined educationally it was the right thing to do, we would do that."
The Common Core standards were designed to raise academic standards and provide greater uniformity across states on what students learn. Previously, there has been a patchwork of standards across the nation, some of which are stronger than others. Proponents of the benchmarks note that standards were weakened in some states in response to No Child Left Behind, which penalized schools where one or more groups of students did not make adequate yearly progress, as measured by graduation rates, test scores and other markers.
The changes proposed in Florida include 13 clarifications in English language arts, including adding cursive writing as a requirement for students in the second through fifth grades. Most of the changes are minor. For example, kindergarten and first-grade students would be required to "identify" an author with prompting and support, as opposed to simply "name" the author of a text.
The recommendations also include the addition of 52 calculus standards. Stewart noted calculus would still have been taught in Florida through Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, but that the change would add calculus for those who might not take those classes.
"A lot of us were very concerned about the public image of the Florida standards," board member John Padget said. "I think I'm able to say that Florida standards with respect to the math are higher."
"I think that's precisely what the intention was," Stewart said.
The state has also renamed the benchmarks the "Florida Standards." Stewart called the decision appropriate.
"When we say 'Florida Standards' we will be referring to all the standards Florida has adopted," she said.
The board will vote on the changes at its meeting in February.