Common Core and multistate assessments now the educational issues that matter most

Early in January 2008, very late in the process that led to the adoption of Florida’s present K-12 science standards, I had a conversation with a more senior colleague that led me in a direction I never expected.  I had been a member of the team working on K-8 physical science standards, and my particular task had been middle school physics.

Evolution – and not physical science – had been getting all the attention and focus during the standards process, and I was more than a little frustrated about that.  I had written an op-ed on the standards process that blamed opponents of evolution education for distracting us from the important work of writing high quality standards on other science subjects (like physical science) and submitted it to the Tallahassee Democrat.  Ironically, the Democrat held it for weeks – until they had gotten an op-ed from the one member of the standards committee who opposed the evolution standards (on religious grounds, of course).  That gave the Democrat the opportunity to publish what they saw as  both sides of the issue.  Gah.

On the first day of 2008 it was far from certain that the State Board of Education would adopt the standards (including those on evolution) at its February meeting, during which a vote was scheduled.  Of course, physical science wasn’t the issue.  The only issue that mattered was evolution.  At least one board member publicly opposed the standards on religious grounds, and it was difficult to tell how the others – all appointed by Republican governors – felt.

It was then that a senior colleague on the committee asked me to engage the evolution education issue fully and to get involved in whatever activities were required.  My initial response was this:  I am a physicist, I care about physical science education, and I’m really tired of having to work around the evolution issue.  I don’t have a dog in this fight.  His response, which grabbed my attention and spun me around, was this:  If we lose the evolution fight, nothing else we’ve done will matter.

Nothing else we’ve done will matter.

In that last month before the fateful February State Board of Education meeting, I was immersed in the evolution education issue.  I remember speaking with a reporter on my cell phone while zipping westward on I-10 from Tallahassee to Pensacola to my son’s soccer tournament while he sat in the back seat of the car.  I engaged in the e-mail squabble among the standards committee members and Florida Department of Education staff about a compromise action – replacing the word “evolution” with the phrase “the scientific theory of evolution” everywhere in the standards – while in the hotel room between the tournament’s games.  Weeks later, the St. Petersburg Times gave me public credit for supporting the compromise.  The FDOE staff asked my advice in making the corresponding wording changes in the physical science standards – “atomic theory” becoming “the scientific theory of atoms”, for example.  (Yuck, huh?)

And then I was the last speaker among the twenty – ten against the evolution standards and ten for – who addressed the State Board of Education during the meeting at which they voted to adopt by a 4-3 margin.  It wasn’t at all clear that any of the board members actually listened to me, but somebody in the room did.  When I started my brief speech by saying “I have good news – I’m last,” the room erupted in laughter.

Then I documented my experience in the evolution education debate by authoring an article that was published in the September 2008 issues of the Jesuit magazine America. The online version of the article had the most hits of any of the articles in the September issue.

I’ve been reflecting on that experience during the last several days because of the public blowback against the Common Core standards in math and English language arts and the associated multistate assessment programs that would, for example, compare the testing performance of students in Florida to that of students of other states including high-performing ones like Massachusetts.  Some education analysts – notably the Fordham Institute – have argued that improvements in science education should be deferred during the implementation of the Common Core so that schools can focus on math and English language arts.  I’ve responded in the feeble ways available to me that improvements in science education must be implemented even during the Common Core implementation.  That science can’t wait.  I haven’t been arguing against the Common Core, but I’ve been arguing against Common Core supporters who say science must be set aside for now.

However, a few electronic conversations I had this week with people I respect a great deal have changed the way I see these issues.  I still think that science can’t wait.  But maybe it’s time to set aside that argument for awhile – a short while.  Because the Common Core and the powerful multistate assessments that were to accompany The Core are really in political trouble.  And in the brutal international economy into which our children are graduating, driving educational achievement upward with the Common Core isn’t just one option, it’s the only option.

If the Common Core fails, our efforts to propel forward student achievement in science, social studies or anything else will fall short.

In short, nothing else we do will matter.

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