Monday, May 21, 2018
Education

Superintendent's road show explains Florida's "Common Core"

RUSKIN — The crowd includes a military mom who just moved from the West Coast, an anxious mom whose kids are getting a lot of writing assignments and a retired teacher with questions from the Internet about an educational movement called Common Core.

It has been raining buckets. But guests have filled all 160 seats in the Hillsborough Community College meeting room.

Now it's up to school superintendent MaryEllen Elia to calm their fears.

Welcome to the Common Core road show. Or, if you prefer, the Florida Standards road show. Who wouldn't be confused? What began as a nationwide effort to improve education — complete with a universal test to measure Jimmy in Florida against Johnny in New York — has been refashioned in Florida, where a state-specific test has yet to be fully unveiled. Johnny in New York? He no longer matters.

From conservatives who paint Common Core as a bullying federal mandate to teachers who fear its effects on young and learning-disabled children, the movement is being pilloried from many sides. Nearly all this year's candidates for Hillsborough County School Board can find fault with the standards or their implementation. Candidate Terry Kemple's Facebook profile photo is a "Stop Common Core" button.

"I'm concerned that we're losing local control, and we want to know how we can get it back," says retired teacher Nancy Fogle, who came with 20 copies of Good Questions Every Parent Should Be Asking About Common Core.

• • •

Wednesday's event is the second this summer for Elia, who has three more sessions planned.

It begins with a PowerPoint presentation that illustrates how big the district is (the nation's eighth largest, with 200,000 students) and gives sample test questions, before and after Florida Standards.

The "before" questions were simple. If Tina had 15 balloons and gave 12 away, how many remain? What did you do on your summer vacation?

The "after" math problems require more steps. Some demand not only an answer, but also the formula.

Writing questions, no longer simple prompts, expect kids to use text to support their arguments.

People in the audience squirm and smirk. Elia senses what they're thinking.

"You often don't think that a first-grader will say, 'I am going to cite evidence from the text,' " she says. But "we have to expect that our students can do things. Because in many, many cases, they can."

She openly acknowledges the hurdles moving forward.

Teachers have not been given training in the state-issued test. The transition could be rocky, and there's nothing the district can do about that.

And while Elia contends teachers like the idea of higher standards, there is discomfort in the ranks. "Most people don't feel real comfortable with any change," she says. "It takes time."

She urges parents to keep in mind that the result will be students who use reasoning skills instead of simply regurgitating facts, who can use math in the real world instead of just bubbling answers on a test, who can find information and work collaboratively as they will in their jobs. "You raise the standards and our students will rise to those standards," she says.

On the issue of local control, she says teachers "get to develop a lot of the things that are used in their classrooms."

She insists this is not a revolution. "We have changed standards multiple times. And I think that the concept of changing standards shouldn't scare us."

• • •

Parents line up at the microphones.

Lori Themar heard that, under the new system, kids no longer will study calculus or trigonometry. That couldn't be further from the truth, Elia assures her. Robin Siversten worries that kids who need after-school help will miss band practice. If that's what they're saying at your school, Elia says, let us know and we'll straighten them out.

Questions are asked about the testing company. It has ties to the people who are developing the Common Core test, doesn't it?

Elia doesn't delve into specifics but she reminds her audience of the need for a test. "You deserve to know if your kids are doing well," she says. And so what if it resembles the one used for Common Core? "The way the kids are tested has to match what we are asking our teachers to teach. It has to." If not, "it's grossly unfair to kids and it's grossly unfair to teachers."

Before long, the issues of Common Core and Florida Standards are largely forgotten as the conversation shifts to parents' complaints about their kids' schools.

A child got a C on his first report card with no warning to the parent. A high school student who had A's in math could not pass the state's end-of-course exam in algebra. A pair of cousins who took Advanced Placement chemistry and calculus went on to University of Florida and were told to retake those courses. Schools emphasize technology, though not all kids have computers.

Elia takes each question head-on. She bets the AP courses helped those cousins get into UF. The end-of-course issue is a complicated one, and she does her best to boil it down without losing her audience.

About technology, she shares an anecdote she has used before, about a parent 20 years ago who insisted, "my child is never going to have to use a computer."

One woman, concerned about the crowding in south Hillsborough, says, "you're building almost 500 houses." Elia interjects, "I'm not building those houses," and reminds her the district has magnet schools. When the same woman asks, what about transportation, Elia says, "I'm the mother of magnets. We have transportation and we provide it.''

She puts in a plug for Parent University, free sessions the district offers on Saturdays, covering topics that include Florida Standards.

To troubleshoot individual problems there are principals scattered in the room. Jason Pepe, the district's communications manager, exchanges contact information with anyone who needs a followup. When the owner of a tutoring center commends Elia for putting in a 12-hour day, she quips, "I was on TV at 6 this morning talking about this meeting."

By now it's after 8 p.m. It's past 9 when the event draws to a close. If Elia was taken aback by the crowd or their questions, she doesn't let on.

It's simple, she says. "They all care about their kids."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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