Revamping FL’s academic standards: Political posturing or what’s best for kids?

Classroom. Getty Images.

A revamp of Florida’s math and English academic standards – what students are expected to know from kindergarten to 12th grade – was designed to promote a “noble view of education” by Frederick Douglass, the 1800s-era abolitionist and orator.

Frederick Douglass. Credit: Wikipedia.

Douglass’ vision encouraged Florida education officials to set standards that would launch “a rich, deep, and meaningful curriculum that ‘uplifts the soul.’”

But some critics say the standards overhaul may be more about political posturing by 21st-century adults than creating a rich experience for public school kids.

And the new standards, scheduled for a vote Wednesday, look similar to Florida’s current standards, raising questions about whether the time-consuming exercise was necessary.

What’s really going on?

The governor acts

Just weeks after his inauguration, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to get rid of Florida’s academic standards and reduce state testing in public schools.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The new governor wanted to eliminate Common Core, the tough math and reading guidelines that had been infused in Florida’s academic standards, with a focus on critical thinking and analysis. The Common Core standards become unpopular with some families, lawmakers and other public officials, pushing DeSantis to act.

Bob Schaeffer, a top director at the nonprofit FairTest, follows the standards and testing debates in Florida.

Schaeffer thinks DeSantis was kowtowing to his Republican base and Common Core-opponents when he pushed for the standards overhaul.

“It is all politics. It is not about what works, it is about political pandering,” said Schaeffer.

This isn’t the first time that Florida officials have changed academic standards, Schaeffer said, and changing standards, changing testing companies and changing the names of standards doesn’t necessarily mean education in Florida will get better.

Ready to vote

The State Board of Education is poised to vote Wednesday on the new set of student performance standards for math and English Language Arts.  The standards have a new name: “Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking,” or B.E.S.T. for short.

The new academic standards range from old-fashioned cursive writing, phonics and classic literature, to back-to-basics memorization of math facts, real-world problem solving, quadratic functions, and geometric theorems.

Andrew Spar, vice president, Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA.

The Florida Education Association reviewed the B.E.S.T. standards, and FEA vice president Andrew Spar described them as “a repackaging of the current standards,” particularly for English Language Arts.

In math, parents had been complaining about not being able to help their kids with confusing math homework and wanted to go back to the basics, Spar said. In response, the new standards include a focus on what parents and grandparents did at school — memorize basic math facts.

Common Core still lingering?

The Florida Phoenix reviewed more than 400 pages of the math and English Language Arts standards and found instances when the new standards looked a lot like the current standards – raising questions about whether Common Core is still lingering in the new B.E.S.T. standards.

For example, a 2nd grade B.E.S.T. standard in math states: “Solve one- and two-step addition and subtraction real-world problems involving either dollar bills within $100 or coins within 100¢ using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately.”

The current Florida standards on the topic says: “Solve one- and two-step word problems involving dollar bills (singles, fives, tens, twenties, and hundreds) or coins (quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies) using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately. Word problems may involve addition, subtraction, and equal groups situations.”

Another similarity:

A 3rd grade, current Florida standard states: “Tell and write time to the nearest minute and measure time intervals in minutes. Solve word problems involving addition and subtraction of time intervals in minutes, e.g., by representing the problem on a number line diagram.”

The B.E.S.T. standard on the 3rd grade topic includes three different standards: Tell and write time and solve problems involving time; Using analog and digital clocks, tell and write time to the nearest minute using a.m. and p.m. appropriately; Solve one- and two-step real-world problems involving elapsed time.

In both cases, the standard on time is based on Common Core standards, according to the website of Common Core State Standards Initiative.

When the Florida Phoenix asked questions about whether Common Core will still be connected to the new academic standards in Florida, Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said this in an email:

“Florida’s B.E.S.T. Standards were completely created from the ground up, by Floridians for Florida students and eliminated common core. There is no crosswalk for exactly this reason, they are in no way similar to the previous Florida standards – it would be impossible to do a one to one comparison.”

Moving in the right direction?

That said, the Florida PTA, which was involved in the standards process, was not expecting a “total elimination” of the current Florida standards, said Angie Gallo, a top leader in the statewide PTA.

She said the process included such things as adding clarity to a particular standard, or moving standards from one grade to another.

The PTA is aware that the changes in math are more prominent compared to  English Language Arts and that the standards process was transparent and involved many groups.

“I think that we’re moving in the right direction,” Gallo said.

In addition to eliminating Common Core, the state’s goal was to “provide a road map to make Florida’s standards number one in the nation,” according to DeSantis’ executive order on Jan. 31, 2019.

When that will happen is not yet clear.

But the Florida Department of Education relied on the vision of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, saying:

“Florida’s B.E.S.T. Standards encourage educators to act on Douglass’ reminder of the ultimate purpose of education. His words confirm that education must be enlightening, noble, and good. He speaks from a tradition that holds education in the highest regard. The Latin root of the word education is educare, which means ‘to bring forth, to bring up.’ Douglass understood that education is the way to bring forth our greatest capacities. Knowledge is the pathway to liberty, which is a fundamental value guaranteed by our government.”

You can read the academic standards on the Florida Department of Education website.