I confess to being stupefied by the recent outpouring of objection to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Florida (along with 44 other states and the District of Columbia) adopted the reading and math standards and has been working on implementing them for about three years without incident. The sudden evolution of Common Core into a political football represents a huge failure of leadership by Gov. Rick Scott, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and the state Board of Education.
My perspective on Common Core is influenced by my experience working for the Tennessee Department of Education while on a hiatus from journalism in the mid-1980s. Under former Gov. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee passed a package of education reform measures. One program that I worked on was called Basic Skills First, which was meant to address a lack of statewide standards in reading and math. Tennessee had never established a set of essential math and reading skills, nor had it specified at what grade levels it expected the students to learn them. Students in Oak Ridge, for example, might learn a math skill in the third grade that kids in Memphis or Nashville didn’t get until the fourth. There was no way to compare the effectiveness of the school systems, and children who moved within the state could find themselves a grade level (or more) ahead or behind their new classmates.
The Basic Skills First program didn’t specify what curriculum teachers had to use. It only identified the skills, attached each skill to a grade level and supplied brief “mastery tests” — four-question quizzes — for each skill.
As tepid an effort as it may now seem, Basic Skills First wasn’t a slam dunk. Some Tennessee districts saw the standards as a ceiling rather than a floor, fearful they’d have to dumb down their curricula. Other districts worried that too many of their kids wouldn’t master enough skills, and their districts would look bad. Teachers worried about record-keeping. I objected to the way many of the standards had been written in jargon-heavy bureaucratese that wasn’t transparent to parents or teachers. And, of course, some believed that Basic Skills First was just a scheme to impose the state’s will on local districts and take away “local control.”
Fast forward to Common Core, designed to help establish standards among states in the same way that the Basic Skills program tried to do among Tennessee’s counties. The current objections to Common Core in Florida pretty much parallel those I saw with Basic Skills First.
Some in Florida and other states see flaws in the Common Core standards themselves. Some states worry the bar is being set too high; a few states worry it’s too low. Teachers unions like the standards and flexibility Common Core offers, but find all manner of problems with assessments or tests to see how well states are doing at teaching them.
Then, of course, there’s the Tea Party and its hallucinatory insistence that the Common Core is a plot by the federal government to nationalize education — and indoctrinate our young people with Communist propaganda. An unfair characterization? Please Google “Common Core” and “Lenin” and read the posts. Never mind that Common Core was developed by the states, with private money. Never mind that the standards and assessments are completely voluntary.
The Florida Board of Education was right to give the Florida Tea Partiers a hearing on Common Core, but when it came time for the rational adults to act rationally, the board, aside from former member Kathleen Shanahan, went spineless. Kissing the hindquarters of the Tea Party, the board voted not to adopt the reading samples, student writing samples and other “appendices” associated with Common Core — even though the appendices aren’t part of the standards, aren’t mandatory and can still be used by local school systems. The board further shredded its credibility with a measure that keeps schools from dropping more than one letter grade if they don’t score well initially under the Common Core standards. Accountability is apparently fine as long as it’s not politically uncomfortable.
Gov. Scott, meanwhile, calls education summits he doesn’t attend and withdraws Florida from the effort to produce the tests that will enable the states to compare results under the Common Core standards. The reason was apparently that the federal government had helped fund the development of the assessments. A major reason to adopt common standards is to enable those comparisons, but never mind — it is an article of faith for Scott that the federal government can do no good, anytime, anywhere.
Back in 1984, no one in Tennessee pretended that Basic Skills First was a be-all, end-all solution to that state’s educational problems, but in a state where first grade in one place was third grade someplace else, it wasn’t a bad move.
Likewise the Common Core standards. They’re not a magic bullet, but the standards are rigorous, flexible and better than what most states, including Florida, have. They’ll enable Florida to compare itself to other states, and they’ll increase the chances that kids who move to Florida will find the same things being taught at the same grade levels as in the schools they left.
They are ultimately a recognition that our children, our future work force, will be competing in a global economy — and need to be educated with that fact firmly in mind.