Beyond the state’s spin: Simple survey reveals frustrated educators, families, and a troubled FL school system

By: - May 24, 2019 7:00 am
Boy sitting on the floor, sad

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services photo

The state’s massive effort to get public input about replacing or revamping Florida’s academic standards has opened the floodgates in schools and homes with schoolchildren, revealing a far more troubled picture of public education than the spin that comes from press releases and news conferences.

A plethora of voices, coming from administrators and teachers to grandparents and moms and dads, made blunt assessments of what’s going on at schools in thousands of comments for a survey launched by the Florida Department of Education in February.

“Our education system is broken.  Very broken.  Having worked in another state as a professional teacher, I will say that Florida schools are in a pretty bad state,” one educator commented.

That’s not the usual positive jargon that comes out of the state capital.

The state education department started asking for feedback as part of a new evaluation of the controversial academic standards called “Common Core,” which Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to eliminate.

The governor earlier this year directed the Florida Department of Education to review Florida’s K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts, essentially to see if the current standards should remain the same or be replaced or revamped. The agency has a Jan. 1 deadline to provide recommendations to the governor.

Thousands of people who wrote into the state education department decided to state their views, and even went a bit off topic. The Phoenix is leaving out the names of people who responded to the survey to protect their privacy.

Several educators and parents revealed that their children experience stress, anxiety and even vomiting over state exams in Florida’s public grade schools and high schools. Those exams are based on Common Core academic standards.

“I am speaking as a psychologist and mother when I say that my children are under more pressure than I feel as an adult, which has likely caused increased mental health issues in our children,’’ one woman remarked.  “To give a personal example, there were multiple children vomiting in my daughter’s classroom because they were scared of not passing the fsa (Florida Standards Assessments).”

And with the focus on math and English language arts standards in public schools – key topics that relate to state tests — families and educators lamented the loss of lengthy fiction novels in English classes, limited recess for little kids during the school day, and a shrinking of once-robust social studies curriculum.

One teacher said it now becomes okay “to read only a portion of a story – enough to answer the questions. No! Students need to read entire stories, novels, plays, etc.”

Also, parents and educators are concerned about limited instruction in spelling, punctuation and grammar that would help students write a proper essay — let alone a research paper.

“The standards that concern me are the ones that are not there,’’ said a Pinellas County educator. “Students are no longer given a foundation in literature nor are they prepared for writing by being taught foundational skills such as how to construct a sentence. They are immediately plunked into writing essays when many do not have the grammatical or structural skills to form comprehensible writing. They enter high school not knowing how to spell, construct sentences, develop vocabulary, or allude to even the most famous literary works.”

The Phoenix obtained the comments from the Florida Department of Education. So far, the agency has received more than 3,700 comments between mid-February and mid-May.

Some comments involve just a few words; others wrote a sentence or two, and others posted lengthy passages.

A key question in the survey was: “We want to hear from you. What standards concern you, and what is your suggested replacement?”

One issue that cropped up is that not everyone really knows what’s in the Common Core standards, including lawmakers that vote on public school policy.

The standards date to 2007, when governors and education commissioners were pushing to develop rigorous academic standards, common across states, that would require critical thinking and problem-solving rather than memorization to ensure kids would be ready for college, careers and life.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were instrumental in the effort. Although the movement for Common Core spread from state to state, he federal government’s U.S. Department of Education did not write the standards.

By late 2013, 45 states plus territories adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts and literacy, and those standards would be used to give state exams. (Florida adopted Common Core in 2010).

But controversy began brewing over Common Core and state testing issues, and in 2013-14, then-Gov. Rick Scott directed the State Department of Education to get rid of a Common Core-based exam. However, education officials have acknowledged that the new exams for Florida were rebranded and included Common Core standards.

Educators said in the survey that they didn’t get enough training in the Common Core-based academic standards, and the information in textbooks – if they had textbooks – did not always match the academic standards that they were expected to teach.

Still, many people in the survey said they wanted to keep the rigorous academic standards in place now, and that it would be expensive to rewrite new standards, buy new textbooks, and retrain teachers if Florida wanted to switch standards.

“I like Common Core,” said an Indian River County educator.  “It provides well-rounded instruction that is appropriate and effective when taught properly. It is non-biased, pro critical thinking, and rigorous.  I believe Mr. DeSantis is gutting Common Core as a political move that is without merit.”

Many people also said that they would support some changes to Common Core, including reducing the number of standards used in various classes.

Numerous educators said the standards in certain grades have been “developmentally inappropriate,“ meaning beyond the age of a child’s usual set of skills. One fifth grade math teacher called it “a recipe for disaster.”

And in English language arts, kids as little as first grade have been asked to understand difficult grammar concepts.

“Prepositions are too hard for first grade. They are still trying to write and learning about nouns and verbs,” said a first grade teacher.

Across the board, teachers found themselves rushing students through myriad standards. That was a problem, because the idea of Common Core was to have fewer topics and deeper instruction.

Math standards, in particular, have been hugely criticized, with parents unable to help their children with homework because of what’s considered complex ways to solve math problems. Many people surveyed wanted to go back to the simple way of doing math in the past decades.

“My humble opinion? Go back to basic 2+2=4, period,” said one parent.

“Go back to the basics” was a common theme.

And across thousands of survey comments, another theme came up over and over again: The standards aren’t the problem — the testing is the problem.

Under federal education law, states must test students in grades three to eight in both math and reading, and at least once in ninth to twelfth grade. (Science is tested annually as well, though not in as many grades).

But Florida administers other exams, such as an Algebra 1 exam required for graduation, that could be eliminated if the state chose to cut back on testing.

Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, an organization that works to end the misuse of standardized testing, said his organization has been “agnostic” about the Common Core standards but adamant about overboard testing in schools.

He had two words for the rise of Florida school exams: “testing insanity.”



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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.