Common Core – For Our Kids

Note: This column ran in the August 16, 2013 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

What do economic development, better jobs, and our kids’ future all have in common? Good schools.

In a few days schools will be back in session. But are those schools good enough? The education our kids get will determine how well they can compete in today’s global economy. It will also determine whether businesses will be able to find the skilled employees they need right here at home – without moving and leaving pockets of unemployment behind. Good schools mean better jobs.

Unfortunately, far from being the best in the word, a recent study showed that America’s students rank only 25th in math and 17th in science among OECD countries. Our kids represent the future of our country, and if their skills are not up to par, not only will they suffer, but our nation will suffer.

The “Common Core state standards” initiative is designed to bring our schools – all our schools – up to par. It sets minimum standards for what every school must teach. Although the Common Core is a nationwide effort, it is not a federal initiative. But political leaders in Washington, in Tallahassee, and locally must step up to the plate, support this concept, and provide the funding to assure our kids are not cheated out of the future they deserve.

In today’s highly charged political environment, the Common Core standards have already come under attack. For example, there are organized groups who for religious reasons oppose teaching children about science, the scientific method, and critical thinking. If they were to win the political argument about what should be taught in our schools, our children could be forever disadvantaged.

Other opponents include those who oppose any outside influence or standards for local schools. In fact some even think the Common Core is a United Nations plot! However, the patchwork approach they favor can only lead to greater inequality, as students in some schools and some states get a head start, while others undermine student opportunities by not teaching the skills needed today.

We live in a mobile society, and young people must be able to compete for jobs in other states. If Florida students fall behind those in other states, they may miss out on opportunities elsewhere.

We must hold our elected officials feet to the fire to support Common Core standards and provide adequate funding for schools, for teacher training, and for our children.

We cannot afford to allow Florida to fester with growing pockets of poverty and unskilled, unemployed youth. It is our job to see that our young people are taught the skills they need. That is the least our children deserve.

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Next Generation Science Standards Released

Turning somewhat away from politics, I wanted to share some thoughts on some recent education news. The final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released on Tuesday, April 9th and they call for some dramatic changes to the way science is taught in the United States.

Rita celebrated girls learning science by making shark hats for a fundraiser with Girls Inc.

The NGSS guidelines are rigorous:  they are intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, provide a set of internationally benchmarked standards for K-12 science education and stipulates what science and engineering concepts should be mastered for college and career readiness.  In many states, science education only begins in high school, missing the opportunity to ignite interest and build knowledge in science at earlier ages.

The new standards were built from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, published by the National Academies National Research Council in 2011.  Twenty-six states, industry partners and a 41-member writing team worked for two years on the guidelines.

While states are not required to adopt the standards, the 26 states involved in their development have committed to seriously consider adoption. This includes Arizona, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kansas and New York, as well as Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

The final version of the standards have contracted the content a bit, and educators at last week’s National Science Teacher Association annual conference in San Antonio expressed excitement that the guidelines will have them covering fewer subject but digging more deeply into the ones they do cover.

Like all major educational reform efforts, the Next Generation Science Standards, like the other Common Core standards projects in language arts and mathematics, are as much about politics as they are about policy. While there will be backlash against a national set of standards in science, from a science curriculum developer’s point of view, they could prove to be an invaluable tool in strengthening science education across the country.

For too long, science curriculum has been vulnerable to the whims of non-educator political groups and movements, as exemplified by efforts made on state levels to include religious theory alongside scientific theory in the creationism vs. evolution debate. National standards will put much of this to rest. Less dramatically, but still importantly, having a common set of standards will allow curriculum companies to spend their time investing in how science is taught as opposed to what is taught – strengthening pedagogical approaches and tools. This is particularly important for elementary science because so many elementary teachers are undereducated in science and lack confidence in teaching it.

It will be interesting to watch how these standards take their place in the American educational landscape. With any luck, they will help to move the US forward in its quest to become a STEM-fluent society.

“Raising the Bar: Reviewing STEM Education in America”

On April 10, I attended a Hearing of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), where they reviewed the need to evaluate the federal government’s STEM investment to ensure it is helping students complete for jobs in these high-demand STEM fields.

By 2018 the United States will have more than 1.2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations. Yet there is growing concern employers will be unable to fill these high paying jobs because too few students graduate high school prepared to pursue STEM-related opportunities.

Many believe the United States will be at a competitive disadvantage if today’s students to not have skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill the 9.2 million STEM jobs expected in the next ten years.

“There is a widespread concern that our nation’s preeminence in science and innovation is eroding,” said Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis, President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston. “Only 5 percent of U.S. college graduates major in engineering, compared with 12 percent of European students and 20 percent of those in Asia.”

The hearing provided committee members a chance to examine federal STEM programs and discuss ways to help improve ways for students to acquire these critical STEM skills.

You can find an archived webcast of the hearing here, or visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings to read witness testimony or opening statements.

An Inaugural Celebration

On Monday, President Barack Obama will be inaugurated into his second term. As one of the 29 Florida electors who cast Florida’s Electoral College votes for President Obama, I received a special invitation from the Joint Congressional Committee for the inauguration, and – along with other electors from across the country — will have a prime seat, right behind Congress.

I have this special opportunity to witness the fruits of our Democratic victory because of all the hard work of volunteers and voters in Sarasota County, in Florida and across the nation. There is still work to be done – Republicans in Congress seem dead set on holding America hostage; and in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and his supporters continue to work against the interests of Florida’s middle class – but this weekend will be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama.

I’ll be sharing more from Washington, DC about all the excitement of this weekend – and then  getting back to work making Florida a better state and America a better nation.

A Laser-Focus on Defeating Rick Scott

The Sarasota County Democratic Party exceeded every expectation in President Obama’s victory in Florida this year, and we have emerged from the 2012 election stronger and more motivated than ever. So I was thrilled to be re-elected as Chair to lead the Party forward.

Our focus for the next two years couldn’t be clearer. We intend to defeat Governor Rick Scott. He has put Florida on the wrong track, and has shown us over and over that he has the wrong priorities and is out of touch with Florida’s values.
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One of 29 Votes

In Tallahassee this week I had the great honor of casting one of Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes to re-elect Barack Obama as President of the United States.

Casting one of Florida's 29 electoral college votes

Casting one of Florida’s 29 electoral college votes

It was a simple procedure – almost mundane – as we signed our names to the ballots. But my thoughts were not mundane, and they echoed what others said that day.

“As I cast my vote for the president of the United States of America, I do so with memories of many Floridians waiting in long lines to cast their vote during early voting and on Election Day,” Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee said in his statement.

I too, thought with gratitude of the many thousands of committed voters who had made my electoral vote for Barack Obama possible.

Another elector, Florida Democratic Party Chair Rod Smith, said, “There is a certain solemnity to this occasion — an affirmation of the great traditions of our people. [One purpose of this ceremony is to] remind ourselves that there are people who have stood up, sat in and laid down their lives to make sure this continues.”

He is right that even this simple ceremony must not be taken for granted because it symbolizes the smooth transition of power that defines our democracy and that so many countries envy. The experience of casting an electoral vote is just one of many that I will treasure from the excitement of the 2012 election.

The Gateway to Opportunity

Every morning when I drop my 13 year-old son at school, I am reminded of the value of a good public education. It is his future. Protecting our public education system is one of the things that drove me into Florida politics years ago. Many of us are appalled at the policies Governor Scott and Republicans in Tallahassee are pursuing — cuts in funding, teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and more.

These are the same kind of policies Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would pursue across the nation. According to them, education is the responsibility of each individual family, and each family should get whatever education they can afford for their kids. Once again, “you’re on your own.” If your family can’t afford much, that’s too bad. Romney and his supporters would abandon those millions of young Americans and their futures.

President Obama understands this is wrong and that a quality public education must be available to all students – not just the few who can afford it. He has said:

“You can choose a future where more Americans have the chance to gain the skills they need to compete, no matter how old they are or how much money they have. Education was the gateway to opportunity for me. It was the gateway for Michelle. It was the gateway for most of you. And now more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life.

“And now you have a choice — we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money. No company should have to look for workers overseas because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home. That’s not our future. That is not our future.”

Education is the foundation for a stronger economy and better jobs for Americans, and it is the gateway to opportunity for all. America can not afford to go back on education. That is why I believe we must re-elect the President and elect Democrats to Congress and our Florida Legislature if we hope to keep our economy and our middle class strong. (Note: This post also appeared last week on SarasotaPatch.com.)