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Education Reform: Do the Florida Standards Benefit Our Children?

Education Reform: Do the Florida Standards Benefit Our Children?

Summer 2014

In order to meet one of Florida’s new statewide learning goals, UCF student-teacher Danielle Murphy, ’14, stood in front of her kindergarten class and invited them to plunge their hands into a bag of blubber.

Well, not exactly. What Murphy showed her students was a plastic bag filled with vegetable shortening — not unlike the fatty layer that keeps creatures warm in cold climates. She asked what they thought would happen if they covered their hands in the white goo before thrusting them into a bucket of icy water. After discussing it, the students shared their hypotheses with the class. Learning to express ideas orally — clearly and audibly — is one of the Florida standards.

When it was time to test their ideas, “They put their hands in there and figured out they couldn’t feel the cold at all,” she says. “They loved it.”

While Murphy enjoys the challenge of teaching to the new benchmarks in language arts and math, other educators, parents and administrators take issue with the standards, which are adapted from a set of nationwide learning goals known as the Common Core.

The goal of the Common Core is to raise student achievement and provide consistent education from one state to the next. It has been adopted by 45 states, including Florida, and the District of Columbia. Those that adopted the standards earned extra points in their application for federal funds through President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

Supporters view the new benchmarks as another step in the right direction for Florida, which launched a series of education reforms in 1996 that continue today. They say the newest standards bring more rigor to the classroom and emphasize critical thinking over memorization.

“I think the key to a good education for our students, and for them to be able to move forward to whatever college and career choices they may make, is to be sure we have rigorous, high academic standards,” says Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, ’85. She feels the Florida standards have met those criteria.

Opponents object to the way the standards were created as well as to their content. “[Both] conservatives and liberals are starting to question the legitimacy of what is going on in the public schools,” says Ceresta Smith, a teacher in Miami Dade County and co-founder of United Opt Out National, a nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate high-stakes testing in public education. “It’s all standardized test prep,” she says. “There’s no deep learning going on.”

Laura Zorc, co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core, calls the state standards mediocre and views their basis in the Common Core as a threat to local control. Her group has been petitioning the Legislature to stop implementation of the benchmarks. “Florida parents are insulted and outraged at the governor and the Florida Department of Education’s attempt to deceive the public into thinking that we now have ‘Florida standards’ when clearly we have national standards,” she says.

The debate grows as Florida prepares to introduce an assessment test aligned with the new standards next school year. It will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which has been given since 1998 to students in grades 3–11. With scores linked to student advancement, school ratings and teacher pay, the stakes continue to be high.

Top Down, Not Top Notch

Critics of the standards argue that the team that wrote the Common Core, developed through the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, included no high school English or mathematics teachers and no university English professors. It did, however, include a number of staff members and consultants from Achieve, an education-reform nonprofit created by business and government leaders in 1996.

Smith, a veteran of 25 years in the classroom, says the new standards put too much pressure on younger students, pushing aside play and socialization. “You’re sitting children at desks far too long.” At the same time, she says, the new standards don’t encourage older students to think deeply enough.

Zorc shares this latter concern. In her view, the Common Core stresses the analysis of excerpted informational texts at the expense of reading classical literature. She also objects to what she calls an emphasis on soft skills, such as global awareness and media literacy, over content learning and the promotion of fuzzy math, of which she says, “The kids are told it’s OK if you get the wrong answer, as long as you can explain how you got your answer.” Zorc feels that as a result, Florida students will fall behind their international peers.

One test, although valuable in terms of data collection, simply cannot tell you all there is to know about a child’s academic progress

Donna Hackett-Mello, ’04

Critics like Smith and Zorc believe that schools place too much emphasis on preparing for standardized tests rather than learning for its own sake. Some parents agree.

Jan Chalhoub, ’95, a Winter Park mother of five students in the Orange County Public Schools system, says, “It’s been such a stressful year for my kindergartner — and kindergarten is supposed to be fun.” She blames the push for students to master sight words and write sentences on the influence of the Common Core and high-stakes testing pressures.

At the same time, her fourth-grader is still struggling with her multiplication tables, which “when we were in school, they drilled into our heads,” she says. “They just focus so much on teaching to take the test that I feel like they’ve missed a lot of fundamentals.”

Though the FCAT created anxiety for her fourth-grader, Chalhoub understood the goals behind the assessments. “I certainly want us to be able to compete in our education system, and [for] our kids to be as smart as they can be,” she says. “But I want to make sure the focus is still on learning — not on test taking, test results [and] merit-based pay.”

Linking teacher pay and school ratings to student test scores has been a sore point for many teachers and administrators. One problem is that educators are evaluated on the test scores of students they may have never taught, says Karri Williams-Fjeldhe, associate professor and reading education coordinator at UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance (COEHP). “It’s not a direct effect,” she says. “It’s an aggregated score, not broken [down by] specific teachers.”

Some think that data evaluation affects students as well. “One test, although valuable in terms of data collection, simply cannot tell you all there is to know about a child’s academic progress,” says Donna Hackett Mello, ’04, a second-grade teacher at Arbor Ridge Elementary in Orlando. “These tests should also not be the only factor in determining school grades.”

Lee Baldwin, a COEHP associate professor who formerly served as the senior director of accountability, research and assessment for Orange County Public Schools, favors accountability, but he acknowledges that testing can produce some unintended consequences, such as causing teachers to rely more on worksheets and other learning tools to make sure students are ready to perform well on standardized tests. “I don’t think anyone was sitting in Tallahassee saying, ‘Let’s eliminate recess,’ but because schools are so fearful they will get a bad grade, they will focus on what they need to do to get a good grade,” he says. But even with these reservations, Baldwin is quick to add that he does not want to eliminate testing.

“It’s not like education was wonderful back in the ’80s before they started accountability,” he says. “You could just look at the national data to know we were not performing as well as we could.”

Raising Expectations

“We’ve had standards in Florida for a long time, and it did not raise concerns in the past,” says Commissioner Stewart. She attributes much of the controversy to a misperception that Florida submitted to a federal takeover by adopting the Common Core. “We’re not mandated to do anything by the federal government,” she says. “These are our own standards.”

In Zorc’s view, the original documents were not changed enough. And because of copyright restrictions by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit organization of public education officials that co-owns the Common Core standards, “You do not see deletions, just additions. This is a concern to many of us,” she says. “Florida has given over our state and local control to a copyright.”

Juli Dixon, a professor of mathematics education at the COEHP, helped revise Florida’s math standards in 2007. More recently, she’s written three books to help educators adapt to the Common Core. To her, the updated standards are not a drastic change, but another step forward. “What the Common Core did was bring more rigor and specificity and focus to our [previous] state standards,” she says. She cites how the standards have achieved a better balance in promoting an understanding of both concepts and procedures, the why and what in mathematics.

Dixon does think educators could do a better job explaining to parents why math looks different compared to when they went to school. “It’s not to create problems for students and parents,” she says. “It’s to help children understand the math we use.” So, while it’s important for students to know that 6 times 7 equals 42, it’s also important to know how they get there. “The conceptual understanding should come first,” she says, so students can build on what they know to tackle more difficult mathematics later on.

Hackett-Mello agrees. “I am on the front lines, [teaching the standards] every day, and I can tell you that it is something my students needed. We are helping students not only learn to use the time-tested methods of problem-solving, but also to find new ways of doing so,” she adds. “The Common Core math is about reaching all of our students.”

Hackett-Mello provides a subtraction lesson that supports Common Core goals:

To subtract 326 from 489, you can write it out in the standard way or the following way:

Think of 326 as 300, 20, 6.

Now, do 489 minus 300.

Then do 189 minus 20.

Finally, do 169 minus 6.

“This is a strategy that some students and many adults actually use more often than they are aware,” she says. “It is how many people subtract large numbers in their heads. Students are becoming better problem solvers now. That’s what Common Core [and the Florida standards are] all about.”

Seminole County Public Schools Superintendent Walt Griffin, ’81, believes the new standards are more relevant because of their emphasis on critical thinking. With access to the Internet, he says, “Students today have to learn how to discern what is accurate and appropriate information.”

The Florida standards also promote a more thorough understanding of language arts, says Commissioner Stewart. “In the past, we’d have students read a passage and [we’d] ask them very functional questions to get at comprehension, such as, ‘What color was Sarah’s dress?’ Students would learn to look for green, dress and Sarah, and they were done. … And now we ask questions like, ‘Why on this particular day would Sarah wear this dress?’ ” To answer, students have to read the entire passage and cite evidence for their answers. “It is a much richer way of instructing students,” she says.

Stewart disagrees with critics who say the standards come at the expense of play. “I think those really good teachers out there know how to incorporate play in their instruction,” she says, “but [students] are in school, even in the primary grades … and I think it is our responsibility to make sure they are moving forward and learning.”

Paul Thurlby illustration of technicians in mission control room, monitoring student progress.

Accountability Equals Improvement

Next spring Florida students will break in a new kind of test based on the Florida standards. According to Commissioner Stewart, the assessment needs to provide “a richer way of being able to glean information from students” than the FCAT did.

While the details are still being worked out on a six-year $220 million contract with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop the test, Florida students will be expected to do more than pick out the right multiple-choice answer. As the Florida Department of Education website states, “Students will be asked to create graphs, interact with test content and write and respond in different ways than on traditional tests.”

For some educators that’s a welcome change. Bubbling in the answers on a test like the FCAT “is kind of divorced from what students do in class every day or once they’re in the workforce,” says UCF Associate Professor Baldwin.

In the selection of AIR, a nonprofit social science and behavior research organization, Stewart says, “We had several key points we were hitting: ensuring an assessment close in cost to the FCAT, close in length of testing time, and that it would work within a grading system in Florida.” Under Stewart’s plan, the first year’s test scores will be used to create a new baseline to measure student and school progress, and schools will not be penalized for poor grades until the 2015–16 school year.

Stewart became a believer in high-stakes testing when she was the principal of an elementary school that earned an F based on its FCAT scores. “Before we started issuing school grades, Florida was really at the bottom of education nationwide, or close to the bottom,” Stewart says. “And this past year we were ranked No. 6 in the nation.” (This is according to the Education Week “Quality Counts” report, which considers six areas of educational policy and performance.) “I will tell you that if there weren’t school grades, [my school] would have been critically low performing forever. But with this impetus, we pulled in teachers from each grade level and developed a plan … We moved from an F to a C in one year,” she says. And more importantly, students began performing on grade level.

Stewart feels it’s up to the teachers and administrators to keep students from feeling stressed about the exams. “If we send the message to students that this consequence is going to happen to you if you don’t do well, we’re sending the wrong message,” she says. “It should be like a theater production. We’ve practiced and practiced for it, and now is our opportunity to shine.”

Illustrations by Paul Thurlby