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  1. Education

Opponents, supporters of the Common Core standards debate in Tampa

Published Oct. 16, 2013

TAMPA — Supporters and critics of the Common Core State Standards squared off Tuesday in the first of three public hearings being held in Florida to gather input about what children should learn.

There was little common ground between the two sides, and emotions ran high.

One parent, Lory Baxley, described how her fourth-grade son has struggled under the Common Core with concepts that she felt he was too young to understand. The worst moment, she said, came when he asked her if he would fail fourth grade.

"Every day brought more tears," she said.

Another parent, Lory Reddel, fought back tears as she described how her daughter had been a struggling reader — until the Common Core. Now in seventh grade, her daughter is earning straight A's and taking honors classes, she said.

"It changed the life of my child," she said.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart mostly listened and took notes as dozens of people expressed either concern or support for the standards. About 200 people came to Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus Tuesday for the hearing, which ran over the scheduled three hours.

Two other hearings will be held this week, in Tallahassee and Broward County.

Gov. Rick Scott called for the hearings after objections, primarily from his tea party base, about the Common Core standards, which were adopted by Florida in 2010 and are slated to be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year.

Once a supporter of the standards, Scott has more recently declined to offer his opinion on them and has said he's concerned about "federal intrusion" in the state's educational system.

More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, which are more complex and rigorous than Florida's previous benchmarks.

Opponents — an unusual marriage of tea party groups, libertarians, progressive activists and some Democratic lawmakers — fear the standards will result in excessive testing, a loss of local control and broad collection of student data.

Some people at the forum Tuesday said they were concerned that private student data — even information about parents' voting records and religious affiliation — would be collected and shared.

At a protest outside the Hillsborough County School Board Tuesday, Tim Curtis, a member of Tampa 912, a tea party group, echoed some of those concerns.

"There are over 300 data elements the government is going to be collecting about your children and about you. Personal information," he said.

State officials have said they don't collect student information that isn't related to students' education.

The state has said it will use public input from the hearings to decide whether to tweak the standards. The state also has received more than 300 emails and more than 4,000 comments on its website, flstandards.org, which called for people to comment on individual English or math standards.

Many of the comments from the website, which didn't require a person to give his or her name, were supportive, while others questioned whether particular standards were too complex — or too simple — for certain grades.

Under college and career readiness standards for English, for instance, a particular benchmark calls for students of all grade levels to "delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence."

One comment said, "What? In the early grades, really?"

Another said a math benchmark for fourth-graders, which requires them to "recognize and generate equivalent fractions," was "dumbing down" the previous standards.

At the hearing Tuesday, Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas and well-known critic of the Common Core, said that despite what Florida's education leaders have said, the new standards are not better than what the state had. Many of the new benchmarks are "developmentally inappropriate" for the grade levels, she said.

The state "would do better returning to its old standards," she said.

But many teachers, district administrators and principals from Hillsborough County schools said Tuesday that the new standards had improved the work done in their classrooms.

Donna De Sena, a district resource teacher for secondary mathematics, said she had seen "amazing engagement" of students. "Mistakes are a part of learning and this is encouraging students to take academic risks," she said.

Jennifer Canady, a reading coach at Jefferson High, said she had seen students write "amazing essays" and get so excited about a lesson that they were dismayed when the bell rang.

MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County schools, said she has been a vocal critic of the state's accountability system when she has disagreed with the state.

But, "In this case, I'm acting as an outspoken advocate because it is good for our kids," she said.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846.

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