Putting Education Reform To The Test

Fact-Checking Tuesday’s Common Core Forum

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Matt Carman / Flickr

A lot was said during the more than five hours of testimony about Common Core in Tampa Tuesday.

We thought we’d try to fact-check some of the statements and add some of the missing context.

The point isn’t to shame the speakers or to play “gotcha,” but to add some clarity to the debate. Education policy is complicated, confusing and cluttered by jargon. Often, it’s not clear where one policy ends and another begins, or who is responsible for the decision.

It’s also difficult to disprove the testimony from teachers and others which attributed student success to the switch to Common Core.

So here’s a few things people said Tuesday night:

“These standards are supposed to increase the readiness for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) of Florida students. Unfortunately, they just do the opposite because the students in early grades are not prepared for challenging math in grade eight, like Algebra. So it doesn’t prepare them – it doesn’t prohibit them from taking – but it doesn’t prepare them. Most students will take no Algebra until grade nine.”

This statement from Hoover Institute scholar Ze’ev Wurman is mostly true, but needs some context. The intent of Common Core isn’t to make sure every high school graduate is ready for an engineering job. But the standards are intended to teach all the STEM skills needed for a job one could land with a high school diploma – such as high-tech manufacturing.

Common Core math standards should been seen as the floor for what students are expected to know and not a ceiling. That means students are still free to exceed the standards and take higher-level math courses prior to college.

Hillsborough and Orange County schools and the Florida Virtual School confirm students will still be able to take algebra in middle school once Common Core is fully in place next year. And those same schools will offer several semesters of calculus in high school.

It’s also worth noting that despite adopting the Common Core standards, Florida no longer requires most students to take Algebra II to earn a high school diploma. Only students seeking a “scholar” diploma would need to take Algebra II.

“Our analysis is that there is not additional cost with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.”

This is how Pam Stewart responded to a question about the cost of Common Core. The key word is additional.

Stewart argued Florida is already spending money on testing, and new Common Core-tied tests are not expected to cost significantly more.

State schools already regularly replace textbooks, she said, so there’s no additional cost to purchase textbooks updated for Common Core.

Florida lawmakers have required half of all instruction be delivered digitally by 2015, so Florida school districts would have to add more computers and expand school Internet networks. New Common Core-tied tests will likely be taken online by most students.

Several outside groups have tried to put a price tag on Common Core. The pro-Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimated a business-as-usual approach would cost $12.1 billion nationally while a bare bones approach using open-sourced materials would cost $3 billion nationally. The estimate for Florida ranges from $182.9 million to $780 million.

The anti-Core Pioneer Institute estimates Common Core will cost $15.8 billion in one-time costs and seven years of operational costs, nationally. Pioneer estimates Florida would spend $1.2 billion over the same period.

Many school districts say it’s not even possible to answer this question right now. They don’t know how many computers and how much bandwidth they’ll need for testing – and when — until Florida chooses a test. They don’t know what the 2015 digital instruction mandate will require.

In other words, take any Common Core cost estimates with a large grain of salt.

“In Sarasota County our high school students in 2013 who took the SAT test scored higher in all three section than both statewide and national averages. So forget Common Core. Come do what we’re doing in Sarasota County. We aren’t falling behind and we don’t need a bogus fix for what isn’t broken. Maybe Florida should just adopt Sarasota County standards.”

This quote shows some of the confusion about standards. Sarasota County schools – just like all schools in Florida – abide by state-adopted standards. Common Core is supplanting those standards. A school district spokesman said the county has no standards separate from those required by the state.

Therefore, Sarasota County schools’ standards are Florida’s standards.

But this could also refer to the curricula used in Sarasota County schools. An educator shorthand is that standards refer to the ‘what’ that students should know, but curriculum is ‘how’ the students learn those standards.

That means lesson plans, books, classroom materials outside resources and even the pacing of the lessons. Curriculum choices will still be handled locally after Common Core is fully in place, though some scholars argue Common Core’s structure restricts some lesson choices.

“I first got involved with the Common Core thing when my son came home with a textbook. It was a Civics textbook. And I said ‘Hey let me look at that,” because I had been reading about Common Core and all the stuff that’s going on in schools. ‘Let me see your book.’ Page two: “What is the definition of a citizen?” – this is in a book written in 2003 – “The definition of a citizen, his first primary goal, is to owe allegiance to the government.” That’s page two. I didn’t have to go in very far. Page 10, I was sick to my stomach…we have local control here in Florida and I want to keep local control here in Florida.”

Here’s an example of how Common Core can be blamed for local, state or federal policy decisions.

Common Core State Standards don’t deal with civics lessons — just math and English Language Arts. The embedded third literacy standard does carry over to other subjects, encouraging teachers to include related documents and reading material in lessons. And the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are recommended Common Core texts.

But the required Civics courses and end-of-year exams are a state decision.
The Civics textbook — and its content — is a local school district decision.

And Common Core wasn’t around in 2003.


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