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Common Core: What's In A Name?

The Florida Channel
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart talks with reporters ahead of Thursday's standards hearing in Tallahassee

Floridians should know next month what changes the state plans to make – if any – to how it implements Common Core. The last of a series of public hearings on the new learning standards concluded this week, leaving more questions than answers.

What is clear are timelines. Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says she’ll take suggestions from the public and come up with a list of recommendations to give to the state board of education in November.

“I think what we’ll plan to do is bring forward a summary at the November meeting for board members so they can see input we’ve gotten—specific and general, both-- and get a consensus from the board of the direction they’d like for us to take," she told reporters Thursday.

The state should decide by March how to replace the outgoing Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT:

“PARCC is still one option that out there the state can still elect to do. The end of the month, we’ll put out an ITN so that we can see what’s shelf or semi-shelf that’s out there, and then looking at what other states have and see whether there’s another state’s assessment we can piggy-back on," the commissioner said

Florida and more than a dozen other states, had planned to use the PARCC assessment—but that plan was derailed amid criticism of Common Core standards aligned with the exams. And aside from decisions on the exams and recommendations—it remains unclear what will happen to the proverbial elephant in the room: Common Core. That uncertainty amped up this week, starting with a state board of education meeting where Stewart wouldn’t even use the words – uneasiness board members Gary Chartrand and Kathleen Shanahan picked up on…

It’s okay to say it," Chartrand urged Stewart during the meeting as she tried to explain the reason behind the choice of wording.

“The commissioner isn’t okay saying it," Shanahan added. But Stewart explained using "common core" to describe where all students where at that point wasn't quite accurate, because higher grades are using combination of the new standards and the old ones until next year.

In recent weeks Stewart has found herself in a position very few would envy. She’s trying to please the board, which she answers to, and Governor Rick Scott: who, because he appoints members of the board—she also answers to. And serving two masters—with differing views on common core—is proving to be extremely hard. And let’s not forget Stewart also has a third constituency--the public:

“Education in Florida is facing many challenges and has many barriers to overcome. Unfortunately, the only issue being discussed here tonight are the standards. And they are not the problem," said Wakulla resident Beth Mims during the Tallahassee leg of the state's education standards hearings.

Through a series of town hall meetings across the state, education officials have gotten an earful from concerned parents, teachers and others like Beth Mims—some for, and some against Common Core. Catherine Baer of the Tea Party Network opposes the standards:

“Having the federal government suggesting and funding psychological standards and testing is an appalling violation of privacy and freedom of conscience as well as the 4th and 10th amendment," Baer said. "That is reason right there to reject common core national standards and the federally-funded and supervised national test.”  

Groups like the conservative Fordham Institute have pronounced Common Core to be equal to or better than the standards Florida currently has in place. And the fact-checking group Politifact Georgia has also told people to stop worrying Common Core will lead to increased data mining on students .Florida’s has been collecting data on its students for more than a decade. And Tallahassee League of Women Voters President Rebecca Sager pushed back on many of the claims as well:

“Concerns have been expressed that the federal government through the Department of Education is attempting to take over education which is a state responsibility," she said, taking aim at a popular criticism that common core represents a federal takeover of education.  "We must remind you the Common Core arose from a group of Governors and Educators—not the department of education. The U.S. Department of Education did respond to a request from that support common core.” 

Opponents say they’d ultimately like to see the state reject Common Core altogether. When asked about that, Commissioner Stewart didn’t rule it out:

“Certainly, that’s input. And we’re going to take all the input and we’re going to make a determination of where we want to go as a state when it comes to rigorous standards for our students. So, as I said before, it’s a little early for us to determine that.”  

Florida adopted Common Core three years ago. It’s now in place in some form in every grade level, with full implementation expected next year. The state says it’s seeking to ensure Florida children have the highest standards possible—but it hard to determine if schools are meeting that goal when officials are shying away from even using the name.

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn!