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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Getting to the Heart of the Common Core

Words that begin with “common” have evolved to be controversial. To most people, “community” and “commonality” denote something good, but to some individualists, they imply excessive conformity. Others think of “common” as meaning vulgar, or at least beneath them, as in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Still other people mistrust the root in “commonweal” and “commonwealth” -- and most of all, “communism.” Such has been the fate of Common Core.

Tea Partiers particularly are spreading the word that Common Core is another federal government takeover, another theft of “states’ rights.” You’ve heard me rage about that before, so I’ll let the broader debate go – except to say that most of us think of ourselves as Americans first, with loyalty to any one state way down on our list of values. We pledge allegiance to the United States of America, not to Texas or Connecticut or Florida.

That argument ended with end of the Civil War, yet “states’ rights” carries on as a rightwing code for resisting cooperation with other Americans. The Orlando Sentinel ran a recent story about comments sent to hearings on Common Core. The very first one was from a parent who doubtless thinks of herself/himself as a “patriot,” but began by decrying the US government. “No Common core period,” the semi-literate writer said. “Our federal government can no longer be trusted… keep everything having to do with schools at the state level. NO for the ‘common good…commie brainwashing!’”

Rather than brainwashing, the heart of the Common Core methodology is to emphasize analytical thinking. Students are taught to ask questions, be skeptical, and open to new possibilities. Common Core encourages the use of scientific method across the curriculum from elementary school to high school, teaching kids to think on their feet and to be ready to change premises in this rapidly changing world. Of course those who prefer memorized dogma will oppose it.

Nor did the article mention that the Common Core curriculum grew out of the National Governors Association, a bipartisan group of all state governors with no link to the federal government. Nowhere did the article mention that 46 of the 50 states have approved its implementation next year. It is controversial in Florida only because Rick Scott is one of those Tea Party governors who win elections by creating controversy where none should exist. He, like other right-wingers, has a philosophy of life that is fundamentally paranoid and uncooperative – the exact opposite of what is needed for any sort of progress.

I’ll admit that when I was teaching, I strongly resisted outsiders who told me how to do my job. They didn’t do that much in those days, though, and teaching in Massachusetts, I had almost unlimited freedom to design the curriculum that I thought would work best for my high-school students. Their IQs varied from 70 to 155, and I had about 150 students per semester in five classes. It was pretty much up to me to figure out how to reach them.

I was still in my twenties, but choices of what aspects of American history to emphasize were largely my own. I wrote the only tests my students took and made many individualized decisions at report card time. Nonetheless, the school board regularly scheduled curriculum meetings, in which someone from some college of education came to tell us what we were doing wrong. And frankly, although these (all-male) professors had no realistic understanding of the challenges we faced, most of my (also all-male) colleagues needed that periodic wake-up call. They were coaches first, and history teachers only secondarily.

So it wasn’t until Cecile Essrig appointed me to Hillsborough’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) to the School Board that I began to think seriously about the need for less individuality, more commonality, and a mutual system of measurement. That was in the 1980s, and “accountability” was just beginning to be a trendy word – especially from the right, which seemed to think that teachers had an easy job that they did badly.

Instead of improving parental involvement and discouraging kids from taking jobs that make homework and extra-curricular activities impossible, these hard-headed philosophers of education wanted to convince the public that teachers – largely women – were failing and were not held accountable for that failure. In fact, most teachers, including tenured teachers, had faced accountability in annual evaluations for decades.

(Actually, back in Massachusetts, the department head used the evaluation process in an attempt to get rid of me so that he could hire another coach. After checking off “superior” in all categories, he checked “not recommended” at the bottom and hoped I would sign the document without noticing his last mark. The faculty union saved me.)

The White House was the origin of most of the accountability trend that became popular during the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 on a promise that he would abolish the Department of Education begun under Jimmy Carter – but Republicans didn’t hold him accountable when he failed to deliver on that. Instead, they used DOE as an implement to beat up on teachers.

At the same time, Florida law created School Improvement Teams of parents, teachers, and others. These may still exist, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any reference to SIT. The legislature, you know, rewrites education law every session, and that keeps private educational consultants employed, while teachers simply are expected to adjust to instability. Anyway, the Hillsborough CAC compared us to other Florida counties, as well as other states, and that was when I had an epiphany about the need for more commonality.

Guess who had the highest SAT scores in the nation at that time? Mississippi! It was at the bottom of every other rank from teacher pay to graduation rates, but it had the highest national test scores. The reason why its kids ranked so well on the Scholastic Achievement Test? Mississippi required students to pay for their own tests. Understandably, only the most affluent college-bound kids took the SAT, and therefore the state looked great on paper.

It was a false result -- and those are easy to come by in a field such as education, in which everyone is an expert. Learning that Mississippi looked like an academic star delivered a clear message to me: all states must play on the same field and by the same rules. Common Core will promote educational continuity if families move (always the case with military families), and it will assure employers that potential employees have a similar educational background, no matter where they went to high school.

Common Core still leaves plenty of room for individualism among students and teachers, and legislatures still will have the ability to fiddle with graduation requirements, extra-credit courses, and a host of other variables. But if we Floridians expect our students to compete on a national level – let alone a global one – we must adopt the standards that everyone else uses. Rick Scott’s go-it-alone attitude will do nothing except demonstrate once again that right-wingers will do any outrageous thing if they think it will hurt the national government and especially President Obama. If Florida fails to go forward with Common Core in 2014, when the rest of the nation does, our kids will be left behind.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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