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  1. Education

Educators, decisionmakers saying deadline for Common Core won't be met

Published Mar. 4, 2013

Florida schools are getting ready for big change.

In the words of state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, the move to the Common Core State Standards will "transform the way students learn, teachers teach and how we assess those two activities."

Students will see tougher coursework, revised textbooks and new tests to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Schools will get new computers, improved Internet access and the capacity to keep it all running.

All the timetables say Common Core must be in place by fall 2014. But many teachers have not been trained. The FCAT's successor is still being developed. State officials have yet to figure out how it will mesh with Florida's school accountability system.

And far from outfitting schools with the required technology, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott are still debating how to pay for it.

Can Florida meet its deadline?

More and more, educators and decisionmakers — people who want the new standards in place — are coming to the same conclusion: No way.

• • •

University of Illinois-Chicago professor Tim Shanahan, a leading proponent of the new standards, argues Florida schools — like most in the country — need more time. He says teachers and principals do not understand the standards, from what he has witnessed during his travels.

"I'm watching what is going on and I think people are reading them incorrectly," he said.

Speaking last month to a roomful of Pasco County district officials, Shanahan recommended that principals ask teachers to study the standards in full.

He said too many districts try to create lessons without the teachers knowing what they are trying to do.

The Florida Department of Education has created an online Common Core "readiness gauge," showing how districts are progressing in 12 key areas such as teacher training and computer availability.

Ten of the state's 67 districts have not met one marker. Many more have met fewer than half.

With the implementation deadline just a year away, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents has asked lawmakers to postpone.

Until they get an answer, though, districts are forging ahead. It's not easy work, said Pam Moore, Pinellas County executive director of core curriculum.

Pinellas, like all Florida districts, is training its teachers, hoping everyone will be prepared to make the system work.

"It is our responsibility to get the United States back on the apex," Moore said. "The Common Core is trying to pull it together."

The concerns run deeper than teacher preparation.

Florida Board of Education members recently joined key state lawmakers in raising questions about whether schools can handle the technology demands of Common Core. The new tests will be computerized and many older schools lack the necessary bandwidth, power sources and machinery.

State Board members have asked lawmakers to pour $480 million into school technology needs, but Scott has proposed $100 million toward that goal.

Even if the districts meet their technology needs, uncertainty looms over whether the new tests being created by two state consortia will be ready on time.

That's an issue that bothers educators, who worry about a disconnect between the curriculum and the tests, as well as how student results will be used for teacher evaluations.

"No one wants it to be ready more than I do," said Bennett, the education commissioner. "But I do think we have to recognize the complexities."

• • •

Those complexities include the eventual passing scores, which all participating states must agree upon, and future costs to keep the tests valid and updated.

Some observers have suggested that the state drop the FCAT, which doesn't assess Common Core standards, and simply let teachers and principals train for the new system until the next tests are available.

Bennett said it's prudent to have a "Plan B." He nixed the idea of canceling testing, but acknowledged the state might need to develop interim tests that meet the revised demands.

Critics point to these and other hurdles as some of the reasons to oppose the transition.

They represent an odd alliance of liberals who say the new standards are another way to pour money into the textbook industry, and conservatives who dislike the notion of nationalizing education.

States did not have to adopt the standards, but they could not compete for millions in federal Race to the Top grants if they chose to abstain.

"We will be able to take an individual child in Tampa and compare that child to an individual child … in Portland, Maine," said Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Evers, a former education official in the George W. Bush administration.

While national comparisons might help education researchers, he said, "I don't think the capacity to do that really helps improve student learning."

Evers suggested the move to a set of standards that no one has ever used before is too great a leap, given the cost. He noted that states also moved toward national testing in the 1990s, only to abandon the effort.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess said he sees good and bad in the new direction.

He agreed that education will become more transparent, but questioned whether the movement will improve what exists.

There's just as good a chance, he said, that the system will buckle under a new bureaucracy the same as the old one.

"Standards are just something you shoot for on paper," Hess said. "You also need to change schools of education, instructional materials. And how will you know if it works and if people are doing what they are supposed to do? There's huge reasons based on past experience to be skeptical."

Andy Smarick, former New Jersey deputy education commissioner, said Florida is far enough along in its school accountability efforts that its switch to Common Core should be more successful and less painful than in other states. The key, he said, is ensuring implementation is done right.

"If we do this poorly, 10 years from now we are going to say we got the policy right but we got the practice wrong," Smarick said. "It's going to be the difference between great results and just more of the same."

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