I was asked recently by a friend to reflect on where I think Oklahoma is in the aftermath of the Common Core debacle. I told her that would take some thought and thinking often happens best through writing, so this is my attempt to clarify my thinking on this topic. It may be a bit rambling, so hang on…
When the Common Core “State” Standards were adopted by the governor of Oklahoma, I had only been teaching at the university level for two and a half years. The first year of that time, I was still working on my dissertation, so it was head down and plow through; I paid little attention to what was going on at either the local or state level in Oklahoma K12 education. Once the Big D was done, I could begin to focus outside my little bubble, but initially my thrust was on building connections with local schools.
Along about late 2010, our faculty was informed that PASS (the set of Oklahoma standards that were in place when I came) were “going away” and we would begin using Common Core Standards. I had never heard of these standards and thought it curious that I was completely unaware of any statewide effort to draft new standards. It seemed logical to me that if new standards were needed, there would have been committees formed to determine the framework and details of the standards, but when I asked about it, the response was usually a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulder.
Nevertheless, as a good little soldier, in the fall of 2011 when I taught my emergent and primary literacy classes, I began to have my teacher candidates attempt to apply the new CC standards to the lesson plans they were required to write for 1st-3rd grade students. We began to discover that the standards components for these age groups and grade levels simply did not match the developmental concepts they were learning about in their textbooks. I became quite frustrated and began looking outside my institution, which seemed to have no answers, for an explanation. To be honest, I cannot remember whose article or whose blog I stumbled across that began to enlighten me as to the real source for these standards. I do clearly remember a video I watched of a woman whose name I do not remember but who had made a large floormap of the intricate relationships between and among the wealthy individuals, for-profit organizations, and political units who had collaborated to create the standards and pass them off as “state-initiated.”
Call me naive, but I was shocked. But that was only the beginning. Later we learned that not only would there be new standards, but there would be new–and more–high-stakes standardized tests for our K-12 students to take and new more “rigorous” teacher evaluations that would be tied to the students’ results on those tests. And all of this would, of course, cost more money.
Then came May 20, 2013, when an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24, many of them children in a school that did not have a storm shelter. When I read that the board of the Moore schools had considered putting in a storm shelter in the new Plaza Towers School but had elected not to because of other costs including the rising costs of more testing for students, I think I lost it. I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking why all schools in Tornado Alley were allowed to operate without adequate protection for students but money could be found for meaningless tests. I expected some blowback from the letter, but there was no response at all. Two months later I was in Walmart (In a small town like Idabel, you run into someone you know every time you go to Walmart!) and I met a lady I recognized from one of the local schools. I was just going to smile and say hello, but she stopped me. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for that letter you wrote.”
“Really?” I responded. “I didn’t think anyone even read it!”
“Oh, no,” she said. “We’re all talking about it!”
A couple of weeks later I received a call from a local teacher. She had been doing some research on the CC herself and had made contact with a group in the Oklahoma City area called ROPE, which then stood for Restore Oklahoma Public Education. ROPE was interested in coming to do a presentation on the true origins of the CC but wanted someone local to also present to provide credibility. I agreed to do it, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was involved in multiple presentations, mostly in Southeast Oklahoma, but one in Texas, was interviewed on the radio and by the newspaper, testified before a legislative Interim Study, wrote numerous blogs and Facebook posts, and spent a day at the State Capitol lobbying against the CC. I was so involved in it, that my campus coordinator was worried I might incur the wrath of the governor. He reminded me I didn’t have tenure yet. But even with all of my involvement, many sacrificed much more in the cause. The day when the legislature repealed the CC and set in place a requirement for “new and better” standards felt like a victory.
Sadly, the victory seems hollow. The outgoing state superintendent made what appeared to be a good-faith effort to start the process of developing standards by inviting people across the state to apply. I applied to be a member of the committee. Her defeat at the polls that fall meant that the process was restarted by her successor and the process seemed much less transparent and more rushed. The result of the process–the new Oklahoma Academic Standards–aren’t awful, but they certainly aren’t great. I reviewed a preliminary portion of the first draft and suggested that there needed to be a standard for structured and unstructured play in the PK and K standards. That didn’t make it into the final draft. Interestingly I’m seeing more and more articles reporting studies that find play an absolute necessity for these children. One thought-provoking article following the Las Vegas tragedy has suggested that a common thread of male mass-shooters is play deprivation as a young child.
Shortly after the legislature repealed CC, the superintendents of the two largest districts in the state announced that they would not give up Common Core. As far as I know they are still operating under those standards, which is incredibly sad, if not tragic, for the young people forced to “learn” under the pressure of standards that are too “rigorous” for their developmental level. One rationale for that decision was that the districts had invested too much in materials aligned with CC and they couldn’t afford to ditch them. And yet, there are studies that show that most of the publishing houses, rather than actually realigning their materials to the Common Core, simply slapped a “Common Core Aligned” sticker on their old stuff and kept selling it.
I live in a very remote, isolated part of the state which is therefore quite rural. My impression is that the CC have not impacted the rural areas as much as the urban areas, but I have no data to support that, and I have only rare opportunities to visit other parts of the state or talk to educators in other sections. And around here, the subject of Common Core just doesn’t come up any more–except when I talk about in my classes, and I do talk about it.
Although the laws adopted to establish CC in most states included an MOU that states that the CC is copyrighted by the CCSSO and cannot be changed, I get the impression that states do not feel threatened by this toothless assertion. I think they will make changes as they deem necessary. However, I am not aware of any specific state that has attempted to “amend” the standards to align them better with developmental continuums.
Close reading has become a touchstone issue for literacy educators. The insistence on close reading without the use of background knowledge, which the CC appear to require, has led to situations in which students are being asked to carry out an action that flies in the face of years of research on comprehension. In addition, the tendency to prepare students for tests by having them read mostly short passages and then answer multiple-choice questions discourages the development of silent reading stamina. In short, the Common Core Standards are a huge experiment taken to scale without evidence to support it and are leading to the shortchanging of the education of our students.
Through all of this, my position on standards in general has changed. Whereas I used to feel that standards were a useful tool, the fact that they have been co-opted in the service high-stakes standardized tests makes their usefulness highly questionable. Standards, in the end, lead to standardization, which is fine for widgets, but not for children.
It is amazing to me that we could have become the most advanced nation on the earth in most areas without educational standards, but we have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the notion that we can’t stay in that position without them. Maybe we aren’t as smart as we thought we were.