MIAMI, FL — When Gov. Rick Scott announced last week he was pulling Florida out of a multi-state consortium working to create tests that will assess students’ mastery of the new Common Core curriculum standards beginning next school year, the news appropriately drew wide coverage from the state’s press corps.
Journalists here sketched out in broad terms what the news meant, what it didn’t mean, and what it might mean. And reporters and commentators alike noted the political calculation driving Scott’s decision—and the shallowness of his explanation for the move.
But there are opportunities here for Sunshine State reporters to pursue this story further—in some cases, by following the lead of reporters across the state line in Georgia.
The coverage so far
Perhaps the most thorough write-ups came from the Sun-Sentinel’s Scott Travis and Kathleen Haughney and Kathleen McGrory of the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times joint Tallahassee bureau. Both articles noted that Scott’s announcement did not mean Florida is abandoning the Common Core standards themselves—just that the state will now administer its own, Florida-specific test to measure student progress. The Herald/Times article rounded up “divided” response from education leaders around the state, while the Sun-Sentinel focused on the move’s uncertain effect on “everything from teacher evaluations to merit pay to school grades.” The Sun-Sentinel also noted that the Republican governor’s decision was driven at least in part by conservative Tea Party activists, who see the Common Core—an attempt to set unified benchmarks for student learning around the country—as a “federal intrusion” into state and local school policy.
In the Tallahassee Democrat, columnist Paul Flemming hit the political angle hard. Because the curriculum standards remain in effect, the actual impact of Scott’s announcement on classroom instruction or “Florida’s education autonomy” will be marginal at best, he wrote—but Scott had managed to convince many people otherwise: “It was a tea party dog whistle, and it worked to perfection.”
A couple blog posts at the Tampa Bay Times’ “Gradebook” blog also took a closer look at Scott’s anti-fed talking points. McGrory added to her main article with a post detailing reporters’ unsuccessful attempts to get the governor to explain how, exactly, a test that will be commissioned by a consortium of states represented an “entry point” for federal intrusion. And while the consortium’s efforts are supported by federal funding, the Times’ Jeffrey S. Solocheck noted that the federal government already “intrudes” on education in Florida by sending the state upwards of $1 billion annually—a situation Scott doesn’t seem to object to.
That’s a solid start. But here are some questions Florida reporters might examine more closely as this story unfolds.
What’s different about Common Core?
The big policy shift underlying the recent developments is the adoption in Florida—and many other states—of the Common Core standards. That’s not exactly news: as a recent Ocala Star-Banner interview with Pam Stewart, the state’s education commissioner, points out, districts have been phasing in changes to implement Common Core for the past three years.
But though it began to be introduced several years ago, descriptions in the latest coverage of what Common Core is all about, how it’s changing instruction, and why it’s controversial tend to be boilerplate. This was the he-said/she-said recap of the debate in the Herald/Times article on Scott’s decision:
Supporters say the new benchmarks emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills. Opponents take issue with the federal government making decisions about standards and assessments, arguing that education decisions should be left to state and local governments.
But reporters can do more to explain to students and parents what the new curriculum is about—perhaps by focusing on what, if anything, has changed in the places that are farthest along in implementing it. Has conversion to the new benchmarks resulted in any meaningful changes? If so, what are they?
There are follow-up questions to be asked, too. For the opponents: what specifically about the changes do they oppose? Is something objectionable happening in Florida classrooms, or is the controversy just about the more abstract idea of federal meddling? And for the proponents, including some educators: every educational modification is touted as bolstering “critical thinking,” but how exactly is instruction now and in the near future better than it was a few years ago? And, importantly: how will we be able to judge whether Common Core is a success?
The details of education policy can admittedly be dry stuff, but the political developments offer a news hook. And the state is about to hold town hall meetings on the Common Core standards, which means there will be a forum to discuss these questions.
Is there time for new tests?