TALLAHASSEE — Opponents of the Common Core educational standards recently took to the microphones at public workshops in Tampa and elsewhere in the state, decrying the program for a number of perceived ills.
It's been described as, among other things, a government takeover of local education — “ObamaCore,” as one critic tagged it.
Supporters say it's a thoughtful set of standards laying out the skills and knowledge that students in kindergarten through 12th grade should master to move into the workforce or higher education.
This week, The Tampa Tribune looked into several of the most common concerns raised about Common Core:
* Common Core is an overreach by the federal government.
The program “was and will remain a state-led effort,” its website says.
“The federal government will not govern the Common Core State Standards Initiative,” it says, but rather it will be guided by “a long-term governance structure with leadership from governors, chief state school officers, and other state policymakers.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking to news editors in June, said Common Core spread of its own volition. Florida and 44 other states have signed on to the new standards.
“No one knew how many groups of states would come together to create their own set of common standards,” Duncan said, “but it could have been several, or even many, groups of states uniting around different sets of standards.
“So this notion of our pushing for one set of standards was never correct,” Duncan added. “In fact, we were totally agnostic on the number of state consortia. We just didn't want 50 states to continue to work in complete isolation from each other.”
* States were required by the federal government to adopt the standards if they wanted to qualify for federal Race to the Top money.
Duncan said Race to the Top, a federal competitive-grant program that rewards states for education system overhauls, in fact awarded points in grant applications (40 out of 500) to “states that were collaborating to create common college- and career-ready standards.”
“It was voluntary — we didn't mandate it — but we absolutely encouraged this state-led work because it is good for kids and good for the country,” Duncan said.
“Moreover, there's a huge difference between creating an incentive — which was absolutely the right thing to do — and mandating particular standards — which is never the right thing to do, and we never will do,” he added. “The states choose their standards; they have been free, and always will be free, to opt for different ones.”
Critics say that “incentive,” nearly a 10th of the grant program's point system, amounts to a significant pressure point on states to get in line and adopt Common Core.
“Did the points, and the dollars, matter to the states? Absolutely,” Duncan said. “But it's not the only reason or even the most important reason why states adopted the Common Core.
“To be clear, total Race to the Top dollars were less than 1 percent of what we spent on K-12 education every single year.”
* The National Governors Association, which helped launch the standards, is a consortium of national lobbying organizations with “maybe a few” governors involved.
A National Governors Association spokeswoman declined to comment on this claim, referring instead to the organization's website.
That site describes the group as a “bipartisan organization of the nation's governors, which promotes visionary state leadership, shares best practices and speaks with a collective voice on national policy.”
All governors of states and U.S. territories are considered “active” members of the organization, whether they pay dues or not. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said Florida does not pay dues.
The association is not set up as a consortium of other lobbying groups, records show. Its policy work, however, is done through the association's Center for Best Practices, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
The Internal Revenue Services requires nonprofits to file a yearly financial disclosure.
For 2011-12, nearly $5 million of the group's $11.5 million in revenue came from unitemized “government grants.” It reported another $5.3 million in “other contributions, gifts (and) grants.”
The top 10 highest-paid employees were given a total of $1.6 million in base and bonus compenation, according to the disclosure.
* Common Core requires English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instruction on informational texts, rather than literary works, and it does not provide a list of recommended authors.
This depends on what's considered “informational texts” and what's considered “literary.”
The state lists examples of informational texts as Alexis de Tocqueville's “Democracy in America,” President Ronald Reagan's “Address to Students at Moscow State University” and “The Declaration of Independence.”
Other informational texts include “maps, charts, graphs, and infographics.”
On the other hand, Common Core places an “at least 50 percent” emphasis on reading and comprehending books such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
Overall, students will read “original works,” but which books are read “is left up to the teacher,” the state's website says.
What, exactly, is a classic?
Florida State University professor Margaret Wright-Cleveland hosts an annual reading marathon of classic books, in which volunteers read aloud a work for 24 hours or more. Past works include “Moby Dick,” “Bleak House” and “Anna Karenina.”
“A 'classic' novel is one that has stood the tests of time and geography; one that readers continue to find relevant, regardless of the relationship between the reader's and author's geography or place in history,” she said.
* The standards stress more writing than reading at every grade level.
At the first public hearing on the standards last week in Tampa, one speaker proclaimed the standards focus more on writing than on reading, which is the “opposite of an academically sound curriculum.”
The speaker, Sandra Stotsky, is a former associate commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Education and a retired University of Arkansas professor.
There are 10 Common Core “anchor standards” for reading and 10 for writing for all grade levels, according to Elizabeth Brown, Hillsborough's secondary education supervisor.
Each anchor standard includes a set of specific goals that students are expected to reach in each grade.
To be precise, with reading standards broken down by grade level, there are 24 each year for students in grades K-2, 22 each year for grades 3-5 and 20 each year for grades 6-12, Brown said. There are consistently 10 writing standards in all grades.
It is important to note that the first three of the 10 writing standards include up to six parts each, Brown said.
“This may appear to some to increase the number of standards,” she wrote in an email. “On closer look, these parts reflect important parts of the whole of the numbered standard.”
* Common Core costs money to implement.
Discussion of Common Core costs tend to leave out that they need to be offset by current expenses.
In other words, “states already spend sizable sums on instructional materials, (student) assessment, and professional development,” according to The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
The institute, described as a conservative-leaning education policy think tank that's in favor of the standards, puts three “gross estimate” price tags on Common Core in Florida.
One is what it calls the business-as-usual cost, “buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers,” which is $780 million.
Another is the “bare bones” cost, “employing open-source materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development,” at $183 million.
A mixed approach of the two costs nearly $318 million, according to the institute. These estimates, however, come from a May 2012 report and encompass “one to three years prior to full implementation in 2014–15.”
On the other hand, the Pioneer Institute, which bills itself as a non-partisan research organization and opposes Common Core, puts costs at $950 million over seven years for books, technology and professional development.
The Florida Department of Education did not immediately provide its cost estimates after a request on Tuesday.
* Common Core is a curriculum that teachers must follow.
It may appear that way because teachers are using different techniques in their classes than before, such as having students read through excerpts of texts multiple times and having them work on forming evidence-based opinions to deepen their thinking skills.
But Common Core lays out what teachers should teach, not how they teach it. The curriculum teachers use is up to states and school districts to decide, said Lynn Dougherty-Underwood, Hillsborough's supervisor of middle and high school reading.
“We develop our curriculum based on those standards,” she said in a recent interview with the Tribune.
The new standards are just goals and the belief that Common Core is a curriculum teachers must adhere to is false, Dougherty-Underwood said.
Rather, Common Core sets expectations for what students in kindergarten through grade 12 should know in English language arts and mathematics in order to get them college or career ready.
* Teachers were not given a chance to weigh in when the standards were written.
The state standards were “researched, written and developed by professional educators and education experts from across the United States and agreed upon in 2010 through a state led initiative,” according to the state.
“Florida's State Board of Education voluntarily adopted (Common Core) in 2010 followed by more than 40 states in 2011.”
Opponents argue that many of those “experts” were professional consultants, not classroom teachers.
But there are, for example, Hillsborough classroom teachers who also helped with Common Core's creation.
Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor of the Florida Department of Education, reached out to teachers across the state in 2009, asking them to be a part of the process.
“We've had the ability to speak on specific standards for years,” said Donna De Sena, a district math resource teacher.