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​The debate over Common Core

The core issue in education this brand new school year revolves around something called the Common Core. It's a prescription for teaching and grading students that's provoked an uncommonly spirited debate around the country. Our Cover Story is reported by Jan Crawford:

It's that familiar time again: Back to school. But something unfamiliar is happening in this fifth grade Florida classroom. It's a whole new approach to education.

"Who is ready to stand up as a team and be a lawyer, and be a group of lawyers, and defend their case with this?" asked the teacher.

"Very often, the strategy is to have students talk about things with other students in the classroom; that's what happens in real life," said MaryEllen Elia, the superintendent of the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, where K-12 learning is being transformed by a new set of high academic standards called the Common Core.

"The Common Core raises the bar for students' performance," Elia said. "We have to challenge our students in ways that have them interact more actively in learning."

Florida is one of 45 states and Washington, D.C., that initially adopted the Common Core, which outlines what students must know at every grade level.

Launched by state officials, the Core was backed by the federal government, offering grant money to states signing on.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Crawford that Common Core focuses on critical thinking skills, "and making sure that young people graduating from high school are truly prepared to be successful in college."

Secretary Duncan was visiting Nashville, Tenn., during a seven-city, back-to-schoolbus tour, spreading the word about education reform.

"How can our students fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential if we don't have high expectations?" Duncan said at a town hall meeting.

Crawford asked, "Why the need for reform of America's schools?"

"So many states, their standards were so low that kids who had worked hard, who had played by the rules, huge percentages of them weren't ready to be successful in college," said Duncan.

Or the world: The latest international exam results in math, science and reading show American kids are below average or middle-of-the-pack.

"I want to keep high-wage jobs in this country," Duncan said. "Businesses will go where the most educated workforce is. I want that to be right here in the United States."

The goal of helping kids learn more in the classroom is something that everyone can agree on. But here's a hard lesson: It's not so easy to figure out HOW to improve education.

The Common Core is now at the core of a heated national controversy.

At parent information meetings around Tampa, MaryEllen Elia sees the opposition face-to-face.

One parent asked, "Is there anything that we as parents can do to drop Common Core? Is it up to us? Is it up to you? Is it up to the state? If we get enough people after it, can we drop it?"

Some complain about new methods of teaching: "We do not like the gyrations they go through in math," said one man.

Others have a different focus, believing, according to Elia, that Common Core has "a political agenda."

"There are factions that believe that Common Core is trying to take over students' minds, that it's trying to influence them in one political position or another," she told Crawford.

And then there's the perception among some conservatives that the federal government is overreaching into state affairs. That may be one reason why Florida re-named its standards the "Florida Standards," after making several changes, like the addition of cursive writing.

Crawford asked, "Is it mainly a change in name only, to get away from the toxic 'Common Core'?"

"Yes, it probably is, to an extent," replied Elia.