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Hillsborough School Board frets about new Common Core standards

Published May 8, 2013

TAMPA — Common Core is the rage of the education world. But on the Hillsborough County School Board, it's a bit of a tough sell.

At a workshop Tuesday, all seven board members expressed reservations about the movement, which seeks to strengthen instruction and make learning standards more consistent across states.

Especially vocal was Doretha Edgecomb, an educator for nearly half a century who has seen countless trends come and go.

"I just worry about the promises that we're making and the expectations that we're having," she said. "Each school does not look the same. Teachers are all over the spectrum. Parents are difficult to get to. Every home is different."

Struggling readers could have trouble with the rigorous curriculum, she said. So could less-experienced teachers, who often teach at lower-income schools.

"New teachers are trying to develop their craft, and yet you are expecting them to begin to think about teaching differently, and getting their kids to learn differently," she said.

Adopted by the state in 2010 and now in the early stages of implementation, the Common Core State Standards promote a deeper understanding of content instead of delivering a great volume of information and hoping students master it.

The approach blends reading, writing and analytic skills with math and science. For example: Instead of stating a scientific fact, a student might be asked to cite evidence of it in a written text.

The overall goal is to prepare students for college or a job that can support a family.

"The standards are robust, they're rigorous, they're real-world and they lead to success for our students," said Wynne Tye, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum.

The School Board doesn't get to vote on whether to adopt Common Core, as that's a state decision. Forty-five states have signed on so far.

But around the nation, criticism has arisen from those on the left with concerns about the impact on disadvantaged students and those on the right who don't want to see a nationalized education system.

It's no different in Hillsborough, where board members have heard from unhappy constituents.

These include teachers, who have spent the last three years learning new methods under a training program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now they're training for Common Core.

"It's a lot of pressure to put on a brand-new teacher," said board member Susan Valdes.

Valdes also worries that, with Common Core's emphasis on verbal skills and vocabulary, many students still learning English will struggle.

Board member Stacy White, after thanking Tye and the other workshop presenters, said he wished they had been more candid about the opposition and the challenges.

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"This feels a little bit like a cheerleading session for Common Core," he said.

White said he does not believe current teaching methods, sometimes derided as "a mile wide and an inch deep," are necessarily bad for students who might take any path after graduation, from college and medical school to a job as a welder.

About the strongest endorsement came from board member Candy Olson. She said she welcomes a national standard and is tired of hearing Florida described as the 47th state in the nation, based solely on education funding.

But, she said, educators have not clearly communicated the benefits of Common Core. And it's a lot for teachers to understand and absorb.

"I think it is critical to give teachers time to process it as it applies to their kids and their schools," she said.

Like Edgecomb, board member Carol Kurdell said she's seen a lot of educational movements come and go. And she worries that not all kindergarten students will be ready, especially if they have not been exposed to school.

"These kids do not come to us all the same," she said.

Chairwoman April Griffin lamented that younger students are missing out on the opportunity to learn through play, and that schools are sitting them down at keyboards as early as preschool.

Board member Cindy Stuart said the challenges in bringing teachers and students up to speed are tremendous. "Will we lengthen the school day?" she asked. She also worries about the state deadlines. "We're almost there. We have a year," she said. "And I have concerns about how we're going to get there."

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia assured board members they'll be kept up to date as the implementation of Common Core continues.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.


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