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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Idea might be good, but Common Core questions remain

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There are reasons to be wary of Common Core, and plenty of people are. There is encouraging news about that, too. Some of its critics have actually managed to communicate their concerns without shouting, wailing or screaming “LIBERAL” every other word.

We’ll get to those issues in a bit, but first let’s expose the more hysterical opponents of this program to those pesky things called facts.

Fact: This is not a federal government “takeover” of education. No matter what the Propeller Beanie Society contends, the states still run the show.

Fact: It says right on the Common Core website that the program focuses on standards in mathematics, English language arts and literacy, plus history, social studies and science. Maybe it’s the science thing that makes some folks nervous. Next thing you know, kids will start asking why the ice caps are melting.

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Florida was all set to move ahead with Common Core, but then Gov. Rick Scott started getting pressure from opponents, and there is an election coming next year. So now, no one knows how this will end.

In a recent op-ed in the Tribune, Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia made a great counter to those who say this is a federal hijack of education.

“The Standards embrace the best academic traditions we all grew up with. For instance, the Standards say students should know their multiplication tables,” Elia wrote. “However, the Standards are not curriculum; they do not dictate how teachers should teach the material. It’s up to school districts and individual teachers to provide the magic so that 8 x 8 = 64 really sticks.”

But like I said, that doesn’t mean Common Core gets a free pass.

The intent to measure how a student in, say, Tampa, stacks up against one in Montana in these core subjects is good. But how do you accomplish that?

Through standardized testing, of course.

Participating states are collaborating on a standard test, which sounds nice in theory. Then again, it always sounds nice.

FCAT sounded nice until people realized schools were “teaching the test” for much of the year instead of actually teaching classes. Mercifully, it is scheduled to go away in 2015 because it doesn’t show how students here compare with those outside the state. In other words, it’s not a good way to measure in today’s real world.

Florida’s “end of course” exams sounded nice, too. Those are the standardized all-or-nothing exams coming out of Tallahassee. Students either pass that test or they flunk the course, no matter what their other scores were throughout the term.

Trouble is, sometimes students find material on the test that wasn’t covered in class. So critics may have a point when they are skeptical of standardized testing on a national scale.

There’s also the assumption that one size fits all in education.

I think Florida Senate President Don Gaetz got it right when he helped shepherd a bill into law last spring that expanded career and technical education. That has the potential to greatly reduce the dropout rate among students just not interested or proficient in higher-level math and science. It’s unclear how Common Core would affect those programs.

These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked.

But running away from Common Core like it’s some socialist takeover hatched by a space alien from Area 51 does no one any good.

The rest of the country is moving on. Florida needs to keep up.

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