TAMPA — Groups of first-graders shift around the room, spending 15 minutes or so on each of a number of activities. Some read silently to themselves, others work on writing and still others listen to a story with headphones.
All will get some time with the teacher, Michelle Wood, working to identify the central idea and supporting details of a story called “The Architects.”
Nearby, fifth-graders in Elizabeth Vasaturo’s class are working toward the same goal.
They dissect a more advanced story called “The House on Mango Street,” digging up details and backing up their answers to the teacher’s questions with specific examples. They scribble notes in the margins of story printouts and share ideas with their classmates.
This is Common Core in action, at Bailey Elementary School in Dover: Teachers in kindergarten through grade 12 focusing on skills students will need to graduate from high school.
These new state standards are winning support from educators as a way to give students a competitive edge. But the move to spread them statewide hit a bump when Gov. Rick Scott, responding to critics of centralized education, ordered a series of meetings, including one in Tampa on Tuesday.
“The Common Core is not a political issue at all,” said Amelia Van Name Larson, assistant superintendent for student achievement in Pasco County. “People are turning this into politics, and it is really unfortunate for our children.”
To see what’s at the bottom of the debate, visit any of a number of classrooms in the Tampa Bay area where the new standards already are guiding instruction.
In Common Core’s language arts portion, there is a list of 32 overarching reading “anchor standards” — such as determining main idea and details of a story — for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The anchor standards include a set of specific skills for each grade that students are expected to master.
Under this particular anchor standard, students should be able to ask and answer questions about key details in a text by the time they exit the first grade. In the fifth grade, they should be able to accurately quote from a piece of writing while drawing inferences from it.
“The standards are built around a great deal of research on what the expectations should be for students to be college- and career-ready when they graduate,” said Lynn Dougherty-Underwood, Hillsborough’s supervisor of middle and high school reading. “(Before), it was almost built in grade level isolation. Sometimes they didn’t connect as well.”
At Bailey, in Vasaturo’s fifth-grade reading block, she had her students read an excerpt of the story independently then reconvene to discuss important details. As she asked questions, hands shot up to take a stab at answering with evidence from the story.
For homework, Vasaturo asked the students to come up with a different name for “The House on Mango Street,” using what they learned about the story in class.
Student Katherine Osborne, 11, said she enjoys being able to prove her answers.
“Last year, I made straight A’s for the whole year,” said Katherine, while taking a break from her assignment. “It helps me show my teacher I am smart.”
Florida teachers — including those in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — implemented the new standards in kindergarten and first-grade classes last year. During the summer, teachers of grades 2 through 12 went through training and are implementing the standards in their classes this year.
Launched in 2009 through a partnership between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core is designed to raise the bar and equip students with the skills they need to compete globally. It also will provide a way to measure students state-to-state — children in California must meet the same standards as children in Florida.
The new language arts and math standards — adopted by Florida, 44 other states and the District of Columbia — are expectations for the skills students should learn by the end of each grade, spread across all subjects. There is an emphasis on reading, writing and critical thinking.
“You’re going to see students collaborating together to solve problems, to talk about their learning, to be able to verbally share what they’re learning with each other and their teacher,” Dougherty-Underwood said. “It’s not ‘What color was the dog,’ but, ‘Why was the dog important to the story?’”
Even though schools across the country are shifting to new standards, many people haven’t heard about them, much less understand them.
According to a recent poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup, nearly two-thirds of the 1,000 Americans polled hadn’t heard of Common Core.
Most of the people who say they know about the initiative said they neither understand it nor embrace it.
In a separate poll, the Utah-based School Improvement Network contacted 1,220 parents across the country and found that only 500 of them had heard of the standards. A survey of those 500 parents shows that 62 percent support the Common Core. Twenty-two percent were opposed to the standards and 81 percent said they will have a positive impact on students.
Many educators agree about the positive impact. In her second year of fully implementing the standards in her classroom, Wood, the Bailey first-grade teacher, said she has been pleased with them so far.
“It’s really good for the kids,” she said.
Dawn Norris, a sixth-grade reading teacher at Monroe Middle School said Common Core simplifies life for parents, students and teachers. “From one year to the next, you know how students are supposed to progress,” she said. “Every standard is connected from one grade level to the next. As a parent, you will know what skills your student should have by the end of the year. You can see where they are and what you need to do to remediate or enrich.”
Even so, opposition is mounting.
The Republican National Committee has passed a resolution that calls the standards “inappropriate overreach.” Republican State Rep. Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach recently filed a bill that would prevent the state Board of Education from implementing the standards in any subjects other than math and English. And there are grassroots movements in Florida against Common Core.
Educators say Common Core is a set of expectations, not the curriculum that its opponents make it out to be.
“The standards provide specific definitions on what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know in English language arts and mathematics,” Pinellas County Public Schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said in an email. “The standards include changes in how teachers teach to help children succeed in the areas that matter most.”
Parents should understand that Common Core is the “what,” not the “how,” according to Hillsborough’s Dougherty-Underwood — meaning the standards are what students are expected to achieve, not how they get there.
States and school districts still come up with the curriculum teachers use to help students reach the expectations, she said.
“We have full control as a district and as a state of how they’re being taught,” she said. “We develop our curriculum based on those standards. The standards just give us expectations on where we need to be.”
This school year is the first for all Florida K-12 teachers to fully implement the Common Core, which replaces goals called the Next Generation Sunshine Standards.
Florida teachers implemented the new standards in kindergarten and first-grade classes last year. During the summer, teachers of grades 2 through 12 went through training and are implementing the standards in their classes this year. Dougherty-Underwood said making the transition is a work in progress for school districts and teachers, who have carved out time for planning and workshops.
“This is very much of the old cliché of building the airplane while you’re flying it,” Dougherty-Underwood said. “The great majority of teachers are understanding what our students need to able to do at the end of the day. We’re pleased with the progress we’re making.”
The Pasco district’s Larson said her only concern is testing.
This year, students will once again take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which measures what they’ve learned under the Next Generation Sunshine Standards, not the new standards.
Next year, tests will roll out that will replace the FCAT and assess students on the Common Core standards.
Last month, Gov. Scott issued an executive order for Florida to remove itself as the fiscal agent of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a testing consortium tied to the new standards.
Florida aims to choose a test by March 2014.
Meantime, local districts are working on helping parents understand the new standards.
Last year, the Hillsborough school district began hosting Saturday Parent University events periodically. Dougherty-Underwood said they are mini-conferences, where parents can attend sessions on various topics, including Common Core. The next one is Oct. 26.
Larson urges parents to read up on the standards.
“Parents need to understand what this is all about,” she said. “They help the district be more accountable for better results. They need to be engaged.”