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Common Core backers tout flexibility

— First-grade teacher Dawn Beck had just finished discussing the attributes of three-dimensional objects with her students at Dayspring Academy, a charter school in west Pasco County.

They learned about the faces, the edges and the vertices. They learned what makes a cube a cube and a cone a cone.

At one time, Beck said, the lesson would stop right there. But that was before the state began phasing in its new Florida Standards, the term Florida now uses for the Common Core state standards that have been adopted by most states and the District of Columbia.

“With the new standards, we will go further,” Beck said.

So the lesson continued, as Beck told the students to teach each other the attributes, an activity to show their deeper understanding of the information. Later, they split into teams and were assigned stations where they identified and counted three-dimensional objects. Finally, they used Play-Doh and straws to construct the shapes, all the while noting that some shapes — a rectangular prism, for example — were impossible to create with the materials at hand.

Beck and her students might do this sort of learning on any given day, but Thursday morning they were involved in a demonstration for the news media that had been arranged by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, for which former Gov. Jeb Bush serves as chairman.

Bush, a potential Republican candidate for president, is a strong proponent of the Common Core state standards, which have come under heavy criticism from various quarters, and the foundation is on a mission to educate the public about the standards and try to knock down some of the myths.

“A lot of people are misinformed,” said Faye Adams, a third-grade teacher at Dayspring who appears in a television commercial the foundation helped fund as part of the “Learn More, Go Further” initiative. “They think it’s a curriculum. It’s not a curriculum.”

The standards set out what students should know in two subjects — math and English language arts — based on grade level. For example, the new standards require kindergarten students to be able to count to 100 by ones and by tens. Florida’s old standards required kindergarten students to count to 20.

Common Core doesn’t require a specific strategy for teaching the standards, though, and proponents say that gives states, local school districts and teachers more autonomy than critics are willing to acknowledge.

Adams said many critics seem to think a box of textbooks from the federal government is going to show up at schools, setting out exactly how everything is to be taught.

That’s simply not so, she said.

Adams and other backers of Common Core say the standards are needed to make sure American students are competitive in a global economy. They say the new standards place a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, rather than relying on rote memorization.

“As a former teacher myself, I am really excited about the new standards,” said Lauren Chianese, director of external affairs for the Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Florida began phasing in the standards about three years ago, and they are to be fully implemented for the 2014-15 school year. Initially, they drew little attention, but over time they have come under heavy scrutiny. Opponents say they are a federal intrusion into what should be local and state education decisions. Some critics worry that student privacy will be violated by data that is collected. Others question whether the standards are as rigorous as proponents claim.

Beck said she was happy to provide the demonstration as part of an effort to show the standards in action.

“There’s been some confusion as to what this really means in the classroom,” she said.

Even though it is just months away from full implementation of the standards, Florida is still working on the assessment test that will measure how well students are performing. Beck is unconcerned that teachers don’t yet know what assessment their students will face.

“I feel confident that no matter what challenge we give the kids, they will rise to the challenge,” she said.

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