NORMAN — Efforts are building to block tougher, nationally uniform academic standards from taking effect next year in Oklahoma’s public schools.
It’s unclear, however, if opponents have the political support to halt a program that the state has been gradually implementing for three years.
Although debates have heated up over Common Core State Standards and some legislators are opposed to them, other state officials are defending the guidelines, which outline the knowledge and skills that students from kindergarten through 12th grade are expected to learn in English language arts and math.
Alex Weintz, press secretary for Gov. Mary Fallin, told Oklahoma Watch recently that Fallin supports Common Core benchmarks because standards in the state and nationally have eroded and students are not being prepared well enough for college and careers. Fallin was recently elected chairwoman of the National Governors Association, which, along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, was a driving force in developing the standards. The Oklahoma Legislature voted to adopt them in 2010, along with 44 other states.
Weintz pointed to Kentucky, where the number of high school graduates who showed college readiness on the ACT test has climbed since Common Core was adopted in 2009.
“We’re interested in results,” Weintz said. “We’ve seen results in other states.”
Still, proponents and opponents are gearing up for what promises to be a months-long fight over the standards, even as schools prepare to fully implement them in school year 2014-2015.
Supporters of Common Core say the new benchmarks will inject more rigor into K-12 education, push students to compete better with those in other top-performing countries, and allow for more accurate comparison of student performance among states. Advocates include education leaders, some prominent Republican and Democratic officials and chambers of commerce.
Opponents say the standards should be dumped or replaced because they represent a federal intrusion into state and local education, with unforeseen consequences. Among those resisting Common Core are tea-party-type conservatives, the Republican National Committee and some Oklahoma pastors. Some educators support tougher standards but oppose any resulting increase in testing time for students.
The increasing tensions over Common Core are playing out in Oklahoma in in various ways.
Some GOP legislators say they plan to introduce bills next session that would modify or repeal Common Core. One advocacy group, Restore Oklahoma Public Education, has been sponsoring “Common Core Is Not OK” events around the state and has debated with proponents on a television forum show. Earlier this year, about 60 Oklahoma ministers, church elders, tea-party members and others submitted a letter to Fallin calling Common Core “the most dangerous Trojan Horse that has yet been brought to our gates” to undermine local control of education.
Last month, questions arose about Common Core’s fate when State Superintendent Janet Barresi withdrew from using Common Core-aligned tests developed through a consortium of about 20 states, called the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness in College, or PARCC. Several other states also have dropped out or scaled back their role in PARCC. Barresi cited the cost and the duration of the tests, as well as the requirement that they be given online after one year. Many small Oklahoma schools have limited bandwidth and technology.
Barresi said the state will work with a company to develop its own new standardized tests for 2014-2015.
But Barresi did not repudiate Common Core. “I want to be clear, this is not a suspension of the implementation time frame for the Oklahoma Academic Standards that include the Common Core State Standards for English and math,” she wrote.
She also has pointed out that Oklahoma has adopted its own tougher social-studies standards and is implementing its own science standards.
Still, some national experts have warned that if many states develop their own tests tied to Common Core, it would make it harder to compare results among states, as well as among districts and schools in different states, and could drive varying degrees of adherence to the standards.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Department of Education staff members are traveling the state to help prepare schools to enact Common Core. They were recently in Guymon, Bristow, Lawton and Hugo to conduct training, said department spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton.
Brian Hunt, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, which supports Common Core, said his group plans to coordinate with educators to explain examples of how teaching will change under the Common Core standards. An example would be, instead of asking students a multiple-choice question about events at the end of the book To Kill a Mockingbird, they would be asked to analyze some of the issues explored in the classic.
Pemberton also cited an example, saying instead of giving students a vocabulary list with words from a passage, they might be asked to read the passage first, then come up with their own vocabulary lists. In general, she said, the goal is to push students to think more critically on their own and use creativity.
In Kentucky, the tougher standards have caused more students’ standardized test scores to drop, which some experts believe will happen initially in many other states that adopt the standards.
If Oklahoma students begin falling behind under Common Core, “we will deal with that and will correct the problem,” Weintz said.
Other GOP leaders also support Common Core. Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate, issued a letter to Oklahoma legislators calling criticisms of the standards “short-sighted” and saying the benchmarks would not threaten local control of what’s taught in the classroom.
Voices of opposition have been growing stronger, however.
Perhaps the most prominent Oklahoma opponent of Common Core is House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who in May called the standards “another vehicle for federal control of our public education system.”
Shannon said recently he does not know how strong of a push there will be in the next legislative session to revise or do away with Common Core.
“I am very concerned about (the possibility of) a federal takeover and I think we need to be very prudent,” Shannon said. “Yes, we need to raise standards, but they need to be Oklahoma standards, not national ones.”
Another opponent is state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, who is chairing two House committees to examine Common Core standards, how they compare to the state’s previous standards and any issues surrounding student testing
“It’s (Common Core) kind of like pushing a snowball off the top of a hill,” Blackwell said. “What’s the scope? What’s it going to entail?” He said he plans to introduce legislation that will modify Common Core, based on findings in the study. Blackwell has been an outspoken opponent of the standards, saying they are an attempt to nationalize education and change every aspect of public schools. “Oklahoma educators, Oklahoma legislators, we will make these decisions,” he said.
Another legislator said he plans to introduce a bill that would repeal and replace Common Core.
“I definitely plan to introduce legislation,” said Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. Nelson and Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, authored a bill last session that restricts student information that can be shared with the federal government, including health and medical records and social security numbers. The bill was approved. Common Core opponents have alleged the standards will allow the federal government to collect personal information about students; supporters have called this misinformation.
Nelson said he would like standards to be tougher than the new math and language standards being implemented this year.
“Let’s set even higher standards to where you don’t need Common Core,” he said. “Our kids deserve it. … The world of tomorrow demands it.”
Nelson, however, acknowledged that his first- and fourth grade children are already benefitting from curriculum changes being driven by Common Core, with his first-grade daughter able to do subjects that his fourth-grade son learned in second grade.
Jenni White, co-founder of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, which opposes Common Core, said she favors returning to previous state standards. In her blog, she writes that she believes Common Core proponents are deceiving the public with claims that the standards will lead to deeper “critical thinking,” which is undefined.
White said in an interview that she views Barresi’s departure from the national consortium testing as a political maneuver to appear to reject the standards while actually implementing them.
“I just think this is bait-and-switch,” White said, “how to make it sound like it’s not Common Core.”
White, who homeschools her children, said she is in favor of going back to the previous state standards.
“This has all been dumped on us,” White said.
Oklahoma Watch reporter Clifton Adcock contributed to this story.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at oklahomawatch.org.