TAMPA — For Exxon Mobil, a new set of academic standards spreading across schools in Florida and nationwide offers the chance for U.S. students to compete more effectively against those from across the globe for jobs with the world's largest oil refiner.
CEO Rex Tillerson jumped into the debate over Common Core Standards when he expressed support for them earlier this month during the National Summit on Education Reform, organized by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“If I'm looking for talent, why wouldn't I go to states that are using the Common Core State Standards, where I know what the performance of that education system is?” Tillerson said during a discussion there. “Not only do I know its performance relative to other states, but I also know its performance relative to international work forces.”
The effectiveness of the new standards – rigorous math and English goals for kindergarten through 12th grade — remain to be seen; they're just now rolling out in the 46 states that have adopted them.
How soon and how broadly the new standards take hold in Florida is now up in the air, though, as opponents get the ear of Florida's political leaders: Gov. Rick Scott ordered a series of three recent hearings on the standards statewide and a Vero Beach lawmaker hopes to require 27 more hearings before Florida moves forward with them.
The lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, has filed House Bill 25 to require that the state Board of Education hold at least one public hearing in each of the state's congressional districts. The bill also would require a cost analysis and would prevent teaching the standards in subjects other than English or math.
Mayfield said she filed the bill after hearing concerns about the standards from parents and teachers.
“After talking to them, I thought, 'We really need to slow this down,'” she said.
Mayfield called CEO Tillerson's stance on Common Core and hiring “absurd.”
“If any of those kids go to Virginia Tech or MIT, you would not hire them just because they went to high school in a state that did not adopt the Common Core State Standards?” she said. “That makes no sense to me.”
Still, some Florida business interests share Tillerson's view.
“I think if some states do this and some don't, the big winners are going to be the kids fortunate enough to live in the states ... who adopted higher standards,” said Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson.
There are about 250,000 open jobs in Florida right now, Wilson said — about 30,000 of them high-paying positions in science, technology, engineering and math.
“We have a skills gap in our country right now,” he said. “Companies like Microsoft are opening laboratories and research centers in other countries. Why are they doing that? The scientists, engineers and researchers oftentimes are in other countries now.
If America is going to provide the best innovation in the world, we have to have people who know how to innovate.”
Exxon Mobil is the nation's second most profitable corporation, behind Apple, but some 60 percent of its employees are from countries outside the United States.
An Exxon Mobil spokesman said in an interview that Common Core will help businesses make decisions.
“Our confidence in and support of the program would provide an extra measure of comfort in evaluating candidates knowing that candidate has gone through the Common Core experience in high school,” spokesman Richard Keil said.
“It sets very important milestones and standards for educational achievement while at the same time providing those most invested in the outcome – local teachers and administrators – with the flexibility they need to best achieve those results.”
The standards were designed to deepen critical thinking skills and better prepare students to enter college or the workforce.
The only states that chose not to adopt the Common Core are Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. Minnesota chose only to implement the English standards.
Whether students are taught the Common Core will not determine whether they get into a Florida university, where business recruiters often turn, said David Lee Henry, director for undergraduate admissions at the University of South Florida.
No such entrance requirement is contemplated by the Florida Board of Governors, which governs the state's university system.
“As long as the student is participating in a rigorous college preparatory program, the (way) the academic information is delivered is not going to necessarily affect the admissions process,” Henry said.
Still, he said, high academic standards will affect their chances of getting into college.
“The Common Core, as I understand it, will provide a greater level of exposure to critical thinking, problem solving and communication to their education,” he said.
Common Core standards are being used already at some grade levels in Florida, but it will be a few years before today's students reach college and the university system can see how they'll affect higher education in the future, Henry said.
“By the time it gets to the higher education frame of mind, it will be in existence for a few years and we will be better able to assess how this truly impacts students and their preparation for college,” he said.
“Like many things that change in education, you have to watch it with a very keen eye, understand the tools of assessment that will be used.”
How Florida conducts that assessment, testing whether individual students meet the new standards, remains up in the air.
Gov. Scott issued an executive order removing Florida from its role as the fiscal agent for a consortium that is developing Common Core tests — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart has said she hopes to have a test in place — the PARCC option or another — by March 2014 so students can take the first Common Core tests next school year.
Meantime, Floridians and education leaders should take CEO Tillerson's message as a “reality check,” said Florida Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan.
“He's taken a very strong stand,” Shanahan said. “He's finding people are not prepared to join the oil and gas industry. Business is paying attention to the need for higher standards and kids graduating with a skills set they can build on. Employers might use that as a baseline.”