Here’s our pick for the biggest education stories of 2013 — a few of which will likely dominate 2014 as well.
TONY BENNETT’S RESIGNATION
Bennett came to Florida in January with a reputation as a rising star among self-proclaimed education reformers and a leading voice for the Common Core English, literacy and math standards fully adopted by 45 states. He also came on the heels of losing his reelection bid as Indiana’s state schools chief to Democrat Glenda Ritz.
His tenure in Florida – like many education commissioners — was short.
In July, the Associated Press published emails showing Bennett asked his Indiana staff to reevaluate the state’s school grading formula in 2012. The emails showed Bennett was particularly concerned that a charter school run by a prominent political donor had initially earned a C. Bennett believed the school should have been rated higher and that the initial grade indicated a flaw in the formula.
A later report commissioned by Indiana’s Republican legislative leadership concluded the school grading formula changes were “plausible,” but that Bennett and his staff had rushed the grades.
Bennett may be back in Florida soon. He’s now advising testing firm ACT.
RISING COMMON CORE OPPOSITION
But through the summer and the fall the opposition to the standards, grew, got organized and forced state leaders to listen. Gov. Rick Scott once supported the standards, but got squishy when critics turned up the heat. State leaders began referring the “the Florida Standards,” which look exactly like the Common Core standards adopted by most other states.
The critics come from both the left and the right end of the political spectrum. Conservatives worried about the loss of local control over education choices, increased data collection and the content of lessons. Those on the liberal end of the political spectrum said Common Core would increase the emphasis on standardized testing.
Both sides worried about the quality of the standards, including what they were seeing in elementary schools which had already switched over to Common Core.
Despite some victories, it’s likely Common Core critics will lose the war. Florida is three years into the implementation of the standards. Grades three through 12 are scheduled to switch to Common Core this fall.
There’s now a bill which would put Common Core on hold, but legislative leaders say they’re not going to throw out the standards.
COMMON CORE MOVING FORWARD
Another big question for Common Core is what it will look like once in place in the classroom.
School districts spent a lot of time preparing teachers for the change.
Many teachers said they like the changes Common Core will bring. They believe they will have more autonomy over their classrooms.
Many teachers say they are changing their methods — and sometimes cutting good material as a result.
But school district leaders are worried about making the switch to Common Core while also putting a new statewide standardized test in place and trying to evaluate teachers based on those test scores. The state superintendents association is asking to revamp the state’s school grading formula and extend the transition to Common Core.
Some states are putting those things on hold while making the switch to Common Core. Lawmakers will need to talk about that when they meet in 2014.
CHOOSING A NEW TEST
The introduction of Common Core will also mean the exit of (most of) the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
It seemed inevitable that Florida would switch to the Partnership of Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a test designed by a multi-state consortium using a federal grant.
But lawmakers raised questions about the length of testing PARCC would require. And Scott seconded their objections and asked the state to pull back its participation in PARCC.
The State Board of Education threw it open for competition and five companies and PARCC have signaled their interest.
The big questions: What will the test look like? What kind of questions will it ask?How much will it cost? How long will it take? Will it be online or also pencil and paper? Will the test — and Florida schools — be ready for the first scheduled use in early 2015?
SCHOOL GRADING CHANGES
Florida superintendents aren’t the only ones talking about changing the school grading formula, the State Board of Education is as well.
The formula will have to be recalibrated for a new standardized test. But that doesn’t necessarily require an overhaul of the formula. Still, state board members have said they are unhappy with the formula and want to change it.
The Florida Department of Education said earlier this month they are working on changes but were not willing to discuss what they were considering.
The recovering state and national economy has been a boon to schools.
Lawmakers have added more than $1 billion to K-12 budgets in each of the past two years, including boosting teacher pay this year.
Additionally, real estate prices are rising across Florida which will add to local school district budgets for construction and maintenance.
Florida is one of many states which requires teachers are evaluated, in part, based on student improvement on standardized tests.
The state’s teacher’s union has challenged the evaluation law in court. And then there was the logically indefensible position of rating teachers using the test scores of students they had not taught.
Lawmakers punted, and made sure districts did not have to rate teachers if it meant using the scores of students in a subject the teacher did not teach.