Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why A Miami Middle School Is Teaching Debate To Conquer Common Core

Bridget McKinney, principal at Miami’s Allapattah Middle School, says her students struggle to pass the state’s reading and writing tests.

So when McKinney first read the Common Core math and language arts standards used in Florida schools this year, what jumped out was the emphasis on answering questions and making arguments using examples and evidence from what students are reading.

Allapattah Middle School principal Bridget McKinney sits in on one of the speech and debate classes she's required her students to take. McKinney says the Common Core standards emphasis using evidence and making arguments.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Allapattah Middle School principal Bridget McKinney sits in on one of the speech and debate classes she's required her students to take. McKinney says the Common Core standards emphasis using evidence and making arguments.

It took McKinney back to college — she was a speech major. So she decided her sixth, seventh and eighth graders would have to take a speech and debate course each year.

McKinney says the goal is to improve reading and writing skills — and state test scores.

“It’s been our Achilles’ heel at Allapattah, meeting that minimum requirement for literacy,” McKinney says. “I have to be very, very innovative or an out-of-the-box thinker to make this connection for my students.”

Florida is one of dozens of states which have adopted math and language arts standards based on Common Core. The standards outline what students should know in every grade.

The state also will begin using a new, tougher test tied to the standards.

McKinney thinks the class will help prepare her students for changes in the the state’s new reading and writing exam. On the previous tests, she says, students would read a single passage and answer a few questions.

“Now they’re going to have four sources and maybe two questions,” she says, referring to snippets from magazine articles, textbooks or poems. “But in those two questions are embedded so many requirements. They have to, one, cite evidence from the four sources. They have to choose a side. They have to use proper grammar and spelling.”

LaDemia Albury is constantly asking her students for evidence.

She asks her students about their book, “Foster Care Oddysey”: Why did Mrs. Chester turn sour after her husband got sick?

She asks a student to read from her essay but cuts her off when she isn’t specific enough.

“Before Mr. Chester was in severe issues – what is the severe issues?” Albury asks. “Just be specific. You’re wasting time with that. You wasted your opportunity to win a case.

“The man is dying. He has emphysema. Why didn’t you write that?”

Math and language arts are the main focus of Common Core standards.

LaDemia Albury moved from an A-rated school to Allapattah Middle School at the request of principal Bridget McKinney.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

LaDemia Albury moved from an A-rated school to Allapattah Middle School at the request of principal Bridget McKinney.

But literacy – reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking – are embedded throughout the standards. And that encourages schools to add more reading in non-Common Core subjects like science and social studies.

Experts say speech and debate is a natural way to support the standards.

Robert Rothman is a fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which supports the Common Core.

“They’ve been included in some state standards before now but haven’t really gotten much attention,” he says.

Common Core is supposed get students ready for college or to help them get a job after high school. Rothman says employers want workers with better communications skills.

But a lot of educators argue the standards are too hard for younger students and don’t ask enough of older students. Parents complain about convoluted homework or the continued emphasis on testing.

Critics say the standards don’t address problems related to poverty, such as homelessness, hunger, or unstable families, that so many students at Allapattah Middle and other schools must deal with in addition to their studies.

And many worry special education students or kids learning English will struggle to keep up. About half of Allapattah’s students are Hispanic and many are new immigrants, particularly from Honduras.

Veldreana Oliver teaches many of those students. She says some couldn’t write in Spanish, let alone English.

A stack of books in Veldreana Oliver's classroom.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Stacks of books in Veldreana Oliver's classroom.

But she points to a wall full of essays as evidence the debate course is working.

“When they entered here in August, they couldn’t do that,” she says. “It’s October. I couldn’t get a sentence, but now I’m getting two paragraphs.”

And just like walking comes before running, back in LaDemia Albury’s classroom, you have to learn to write before you can debate.

“When are we going to start debatin’ in here?’,” Albury says, immitating a student’s question. “And I made it clear to them that until you learn how to put your argument down clearly… on a sheet of paper, we will never start the verbal part of it because we have to get the written part down pat.”


  • RenoParent

    Possibly the best and most thoroughly researched anti-Common Core presentation to date. [54 minute video]

    • Joy

      Did you read the article or do you just post the same thing every time you see the words Common Core? Maybe you should sign up for Principal McKinney’s debate class.

      • RenoParent

        Did you watch the video?

        • Joy

          Why don’t you use your pre-Common Core skills and craft me a compelling argument as to why I should watch your video?

          • Brenda Harrell

            Well not watching the video speaks volumes.

          • RenoParent

            Either watch the video or don’t, I do not appreciate your sarcasm.

          • Joy

            What sarcasm? I’m being condescending not sarcastic.

          • Brenda Harrell

            You make no compelling argument for it either. Watch the video and that will explain it for you. Not watching it tells me all I need to know about you and there are not that many good teachers anymore, and I don’t trust them to teach my child. I had enough of Language Arts last year with common core. and They will not be taught that krap again. Kapeesh?

          • RenoParent

            You seem like the typical arrogant CC supporter. My work here is done!

      • Brenda Harrell

        Maybe you should do some research and see why this is so bad.

        • Joy

          I have done plenty of research and have formed my own opinions. Why don’t you make an argument as to why you think its so bad so that I can make a counter argument?

          • Brenda Harrell

            and I have my opinion’s and I am not going to argue with brainwashed liberals, because you are not worth my time and effort.. Did you even watch the video?

          • Joy

            I am not a liberal. I am a parent who has read through the national Common Core Guidelines and the ones for my State. I also tutor several neighborhood children at various grade levels. Adding to that, I was a teaching major several years ago but dropped out in disgust. I do however, recognize many of the teaching methods that are being blamed on Common Core and can tell you that they are pre-Common Core. If you were at my house, I could even show them to you in my old text books.

            Common Core is not a learning method – its a set of benchmarks that say what skills children should have at each grade level. How schools get them to those skill levels is up to the school boards. Some school boards are doing a better job at choosing learning material than others.

            I did not watch the video because my computer is doing something else that is taking up most of my processing and neither of you have given me a compelling enough argument to interrupt what my computer is doing in order to watch this video.

          • Ray

            Why do you assume anybody is liberal when you have no proof that they are liberal? Or why do you think in your own words, not through another video that the common core does not work? These are the questions you need to concentrate on if you want to debate why YOU think the common core doesn’t work. You want to know why I know you didn’t get a thorough education, because you fail to understand how to properly debate the subject your foe, so to speak, is presenting to you.

          • Brenda Harrell

            And why are you invading my conversation to another person, when this is none of your concern. You need to concentrate and do your own research why common core is bad. I don’t have to explain to you or anyone else why I think this is bad. I lived through common core last year. The history is incorrect, the math is to confusing, so why can’t they teach it correctly? Language Arts is a sham. this is nothing more than the indoctrination, brainwashing, data mining and dumbing down of our children. Not all children learn at the same level. Some are smarter than others. I like learning the basics and they way we were taught. Not some commie left wing government, telling me that commie core is great, when it is horrible. If you need more info than that, I suggest you get you little fingers and eyes glued to your computer and find facts and do research on your own.

          • DebateCoach

            It’s disappointing that you’ve used CC as an excuse to indulge your racism by pulling your child out of school. I too believe that federal education standards are unconstitutional and destructive to our education system. However, please make a reasoned argument rather than a racist rant against immigrant children. I teach children from many diverse backgrounds and one thing they all share is a desire to learn. Your error ridden grammar and inability to articulate support for an opinion seems an indication that your child would be better served in the hands of education professionals. Consider your child’s real needs before indulging your own bigotry.

          • DebateCoach

            This is a public forum. To have a conversation with only one other person, you would need to email or private message them. Stay focused.

          • DebateCoach

            The plural of “opinion” does not contain an apostrophe. Please tell us that you are not going to home school your children.

          • lettersfromthesky

            “Bad” or “Not Bad” in reference to the Core… DEBATE is always a great skill… (says the coach of a debate team who hold the State Championship in our state).

          • Brenda Harrell

            Because it is the brainwashing, indoctrination, data mining, and dumbing down of our children. When you have to take a math equation and make it so confusing and hard, the kids are going to give up and therefore there will be more of a drop out rate. There was nothing wrong with the way we were taught by teaching the basics. They are not teaching true history, but the liberalism that only the government wants you to know. And don’t sit there and tell me the government is not involved. This is Obama’s race to the top and his friends Bill Gates, along with the terrorist Bill Ayres are in on this, along with the Pierson group who is making millions by making these stupid tests. Teacher’s shouldn’t have to teach to a test and the students are not learning anything that will stick with them. They can’t and don’t make learning interesting or fun anymore for the children. If you can’t comprehend what I have written, I really could care less. You have no argument and the only thing you liberals have is critical thinking on this common core disaster, instead of logic, and common sense.

    • Brenda Harrell

      Thanks, Reno parent. Most of these people on here have been lied to about common core and think it is the greatest thing and it is horrible. I pulled my child out of school because of this curriculum and the illegals in our school systems. They could carry God knows what kind of diseases. Pay no attention to these brainwashed people.

      • DebateCoach

        Try not to sound racist and xenophobic – it destroys your credibility.

        • Brenda Harrell

          Gee, I didn’t say anything about race, I said illegals but then again you have no credibility or common sense or comprehension. What you say is nothing more than balderdash.

  • Dave

    This is textbook Socratic Seminar and it works. CC or no CC this method of teaching has shown to be successful in all students regardless of color, race, or monetary social status.

    • Joy

      Common Core doesn’t say how schools have to teach. It just says that at a specific grade level students should have certain skill sets. How schools get students to that skill level is up to the local school boards.

  • Joy

    Great idea. It doesn’t take a genius to see that many people are stuck in the ghettos because they lack the skills Principal McKinney is trying to teach these students. Ferguson is a good example of this. Standing around with their hands in the air yelling “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and giving police the “affronted look” isn’t winning over most of the country. If they could phrase their rebuttals in sentence form instead of just reiterating slogans they would probably get a lot further in life.

  • Brenda Harrell

    If these principals and teachers are so concerned about commie core then fight against it. My child loved school until they put this krap in place. Teach the basics and not to some dumb tests. These schools are going to fail, and so are the kids. It is the dumbing down, brainwashing, indoctrination, and data mining of our children. Just look at the colleges. Nothing but liberal brainwashing.

    • DebateCoach

      Please stop with the spelling errors, incomplete sentences, and capitalization errors. Oh, yeah, and the racism.

    • Jeremy Wolf

      Brenda..I’ve homeschooled for more than 15 yrs. and have used Saxon Math which does help kids get ready for college. It’s a great math curriculum. And I agree with your comments on common core. My cousin’s kids are doing it & she says it’s terrible.

  • John Milton

    “What is the severe issues?” Are we sure she is teaching them grammar also?

  • akb

    True, Common Core is not a curriculum. It is a set of standards. A good idea. The issue is there are no textbooks, no curriculum in existence to teach these standards. It’s like sending in a football team on first down and no playbook exists. Every play is called at the line. Teachers across the country are sent into the classroom with no textbooks or currculum. No idea how to meet the standards. Writing curriculum is very hard and long work. It requires a lot of research. Teachers simply do not have the time to write a yearlong curriculum during the school year. Again, they call the play at the line every day. States rushed to embrace the standards but did not prepare teachers to teach to them. The accountability needs to be with administration and the state governments. It’s not that common core is the problem, it is it’s implementation that is a disaster. Right now it is easier to go back to the old curriculums until new ones can be created using the new standards regardless. If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher to see the textbooks being used, assessments, and how to measure a child’s progress without standardized testing.

  • Florida Mom

    I loved reading this article about how a teacher rose to the occasion to move her students forward.

  • Shiny Elena

    I think Common Core might bring benefits if we have more talanted and creative teachers and more rational system, but for this moment we have more opponents. Modern society, students, teachers, parents know how to overcome some education issues, like student’s loan or thesis writing but still there are no prescriptions of successful study and balanced growth of a kid into intelligent and many sided personality.

  • DebateCoach

    Ridiculous – delaying the verbal argumentation until written is complete is incompetence. Verbal argumentation should accompany all phases of the writing process in order to enhance it. Do it right.

  • Computer-supported collaborative learning also works. Our knowledge building network of education technology plus a Community of Practices and a partnering of classrooms world-wide would also conquer common core through the acquisition of 21st Century skills. http://www.kbinaction.com

  • Common Core is a set of standards. And if we stick to it, it guarantees us a future in whiling away the level of knowledge of our children will increase substantially. What can not but rejoice!

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