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Florida Prepares To Take Learning To The Next Level

Florida and more than 40 other states have adopted uniform education standards called the common core. By 2015 almost all of the nation’s public school students will be learning the same things when it comes to math and language arts. And as students prepare to go back to school this month, they won’t be the only ones facing a learning curve.

More than 2,000 teachers from Leon and surrounding counties came to Tallahassee’s Civic Center to find out first-hand what those new common core standards are all about.Similarly packed sessions have been happening all summer in school districts across the state. Soon students across the county will be learning the exact same things at the exact same time.

 “The common core essentially levels out the playing field across the country. It’s a voluntary program where states embrace a new set of standards. So it’s an idea whose time has come,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

And it will be up to teachers to bring that information home.

“We’re trying to move and get our teachers ready so they’ll know what to do and what their expectations are. And I’ve got the highest level of confidence in teachers throughout this state. If we give them what they need they’ll continue to provide excellent education for the students throughout Florida,” said Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons.

This year, students in grades Kindergarten through second will begin learning under the state’s new requirements. Those standards are much harder than what students, and their teachers have been doing in the past, and state education officials say that’s by design.

“Students are going to have to have higher expectations. Teachers are going to have to expect more of their students,” said Florida Department of Education Deputy K-12 Chancellor Mary Jane Tapin.

The state’s old learning requirements were a mile wide, and an inch-deep, and “we gave teachers a whole long list of things to teach and not enough time to do it well. Now that list of content has been condensed dramatically to give them more time to teach all the kids in their classroom to the depth of understanding that the common core will require,” Tapin said.

The state began moving to the more detailed learning system this year and the changes could be seen in the state’s writing test. In the prior year, more than 80 percent of students passed it, but this year, the number dropped to around 25 percent. And that wasn’t because students all of a sudden got dumber in the space of the year—it was because the state started paying more attention to details: like spelling, punctuation, grammar. Things Florida let fall by the wayside.

“I think requiring the student to communicate back, a defense of why they’ve chosen the answer they did or why they know the solution is correct, I think we did move away from that, and its vital for us to remember things year after year after year.”  

In a way, the new common core learning standards are a return to the past: to a time when students didn’t only have to check the “yes” or “no” box on a test, but were required to answer the question of “why”—why does it matter? And teachers like Katherine Soles, a reading coach at Leon County’s Hartsfield Elementary School saysthese new standards are much more in-depth, and challenge students to prove why they think a certain way.

“They have to cite evidence from text when they answer questions. Before we did this transition I’d say there were a lot more lower-ended questions like, “what color is the car the man is driving.” Now it’s “How do you know the man is angry?” and then they’d have to go and cite evidence from the text. The author wrote that he was furious.”   

The common core curriculum means that for the first time, the states will be united under a common goal. It’s also something that nations like Finland, Canada, Japan and South Korea—which have bypassed the U.S. in terms of student achievement—all have in common. The new learning standards have been endorsed by both Republican and Democratic Governors in more than 40 states, along with the American Federation of Teachers union, and state and local school officials.

“And I hope in a couple of years we’ll see the benefit in terms of student achievement as well as our employers—seeing their needs fulfilled through the students who are graduating. FDOE’s Mary Jane Tapin says she’s been in education for more than 30-years, and it’s the first time she’s seen such widespread agreement.

By 2015, public school students in all grade levels in participating states will be learning under the common core system. Florida is working to phase out the FCAT in exchange for new tests that will allow for an apples-to-apples comparison between students in Florida, and those across the nation. The goal is to teach students how to think, and to prepare them for college or careers.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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