Fifth time in 24 years. Why Florida is changing school standards, again

The effort, ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, aims to transform the way students learn in public schools. A “listening session” is set for Tampa’s Jefferson High.
In this image from a telecast by The Florida Channel, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks to a Gainesville crowd that came to discuss revisions to the state's education standards this past week. “We're going to end up with the world's best standards,” Corcoran said. The Florida Channel
In this image from a telecast by The Florida Channel, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks to a Gainesville crowd that came to discuss revisions to the state's education standards this past week. “We're going to end up with the world's best standards,” Corcoran said. The Florida Channel
Published October 12

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran didn’t hide his enthusiasm during a “listening session” Thursday in Gainesville, where a crowd showed up to discuss proposed changes to the state’s education standards.

“We’re going to end up with the world’s best standards,” he said. “We’re going to end up with an education that’s going to transform our children’s hearts and souls and minds.”

He used words like “historic” and “unprecedented” to describe his department’s fifth effort in 24 years to revise the list of skills children should accomplish each year in public school.

The state, Corcoran said, would eliminate the Common Core as Gov. Ron DeSantis promised, create more understandable and measurable expectations, streamline testing, and end up No. 1.

But many educators used different words to describe what’s going on.

They’ve called the proposed revisions weak and vague in comparison to the existing standards, which they deemed both complex and challenging.

Florida has long touted its high national ranking in academic outcomes, noted Lea Mitchell, Pasco County’s director of Leading and Learning. She suggested the current standards helped Florida get those results, and have more “depth and focus” than the revised version.

Donna Garcia, executive director of the Heartland Educational Consortium in central Florida, said she saw the state making an effort to change “really good standards” intended to push students, simply because of a semantics controversy over the Common Core.

While running for the governor’s office in 2018, DeSantis said he met parents dismayed by their inability to understand their children’s math homework.

They blamed the Common Core, a set of standards first proposed by the National Governors Association that became the foundation for Florida’s existing standards.

Since its initial adoption by 45 states in 2010 (the number is now lower), Common Core has remained under fire from conservatives who claimed it was a federal mandate driving what to teach and test in schools. It sets benchmarks for student outcomes, but is often confused with curriculum, which is the material and lessons that teachers use to achieve the standards.

Soon after his election, DeSantis followed through on the parents’ complaints. He issued an executive order to eliminate Common Core from Florida’s schools, and to revise the academic standards.

RELATED: DeSantis takes aim at Common Core in executive order

Groups of educators and other experts now have spent months poring over the English-language arts and math criteria to make it happen.

They’ve changed some verbs and switched the grades when some concepts would be taught. But have they eliminated the Common Core?

Despite that stated goal, department officials have not responded to multiple calls and emails from the Tampa Bay Times asking how, exactly, that would happen.

Alachua County school superintendent Karen Clarke welcomes the crowd at a
Alachua County school superintendent Karen Clarke welcomes the crowd at a "listening session" Thursday to discuss changes in the Florida's education standards. A similar session is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Jefferson High, 4401 W Cypress St. in Tampa. The Florida Channel

State Senate Education Committee chairman Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and DeSantis ally, said it might never occur. It’s complicated, Diaz explained.

Some requirements included in Common Core existed before they were incorporated into those controversial standards and they should still stay, he said.

Fractions, for example, shouldn’t be political.

“Common Core, that all became a bad word,” Diaz said. “If you were to take the labels off of different things and take pure standards and put them in front of parents, I think there would be a lot of agreement in what kids need to learn. You put labels on some of these things and then there’s pushback from a lot of people.”

Activists like Randy Osborne of the Eagle Forum have praised the state for its effort to “stop Common Core.”

Otherwise, the reaction to Florida’s second round of rewrites has been largely negative.

Of the thousands of written comments submitted to the state, huge percentages suggested that the current standards work perfectly well and shouldn’t be replaced.

RELATED: Who wants changes to Florida’s Common Core standards?

Those who have offered specific input, either in writing or while speaking at the listening tour, have taken issue with the details of the rewrite.

Several speakers in Gainesville trashed the proposals for kindergarten and first-grade language arts, saying they were not age-appropriate.

Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua County Education Association, even took issue with the stated target of becoming No. 1 in the nation for standards. While it sounds “really great,” Ward told the department officials, it actually is “very simplistic.”

Some argued that the effort to make the standards more clear and concise, as chancellor Jacob Oliva explained was a goal, instead seemed to water them down.

That’s a problem, they said, in that one aim of adopting the Common Core was to help students to think in more complex and critical ways.

Oliva stated that the rigor would remain.

Garcia, from the Heartland Educational Consortium, said she met with several teachers in the six counties her organization serves to help gather thoughts and advice about the draft.

Some saw Florida’s current standards as more thorough and advanced than those of the other states that the Department of Education has offered as comparison points, she said. One opined that the revisions looked like they were just the current Florida standards dumped into a bag, shaken up and allowed to fall out in different places.

“We have to be careful,” said Seminole County school superintendent Walt Griffin, whose district also hosted a listening session. “If we break things up into too many small pieces, it becomes lower-level type work.”

Seminole County schools, Griffin said, have no desire to lower expectations or reduce the complexity of what they are teaching.

Former Gov. Rick Scott faced a similar political scenario in 2014. He, too, called for a thorough review of Common Core in Florida to satisfy his conservative base.

The state had been a leader in adopting the standards, and oversaw one of two national testing consortiums that created common tests for several states.

In the end, Scott did not make his backers happy.

After a lengthy review, the state made only minimal changes to the standards. But in a nod to the controversy, it dumped the name Common Core and abandoned the testing group.

The outcome that followed included a rapid move to a different test that hadn’t yet been developed. It launched with so many problems that the Legislature called for a validity study to ensure the model was working properly.

Seminole superintendent Griffin predicted that another rapid change of standards — DeSantis has called for a final version by January, to implement in June — could again prove costly and time-consuming to put in place.

He withheld judgment on the proposals so far until the next draft, which Chancellor Oliva said would come in late fall after completing the nine-county listening tour.

“We truly are listening,” Oliva told the Alachua County crowd. “We need to get this right.”

Griffin was hopeful that, as the standards revision advances, the state will reconsider testing, too, as Corcoran mentioned.

Long a supporter of replacing state standardized exams with nationally accepted ones, Griffin contended a change in standards would require new tests and a “move away from our antiquated accountability system.”

RELATED: Florida’s school testing debate is alive again with calls to adopt a national exam

Mitchell, the Pasco County administrator, said she hoped state officials will closely study the proposed changes and look for evidence that they will improve learning.

“I don’t want to lose progress for hope,” said Mitchell, who plans to attend the listening session at Tampa’s Jefferson High School on Thursday. “I don’t think hope is a strategy.”

Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.

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If you go

The Florida Department of Education will hold a one-hour session to hear public input on the standards proposals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at Jefferson High, 4401 W Cypress St. in Tampa.

Learn more about the Florida standards review at fldoe.org/standardsreview

Read Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order on Common Core and academic standards here.

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