, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 5, 2014

Core Divide: Tempers flare over education standards

Money at stake in move to adopt new standards

OKLAHOMA CITY — For four years, Norman teachers have prepared for the day that new education standards adopted by Oklahoma legislators would arrive in their classrooms.

Like other districts across the state, Norman’s schools have spent thousands to prepare teachers. They’ve reviewed curriculum, adjusting when needed, to ensure students will be ready when the new Common Core standards in English and math, also known as Oklahoma Academic Standards, take effect this coming school year.

Shirley Simmons, Norman’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said she’s found the standards are appropriate to students’ grade and ability. The district still sets its own curriculum and teaches mostly the same types of math problems, she said, though students definitely write more because of the new standards.

Not everyone is convinced. About four years after Oklahoma legislators overwhelmingly approved the standards, many have buyer’s remorse, giving rise to a bill that would change how the state adopts education standards.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, and State Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, are sponsoring a bill now working its way through the Legislature to essentially stall implementation of the Oklahoma Academic Standards.

While 45 states have adopted the Common Core standards, 11 are weighing bills to slow or revoke them, said Daniel Thatcher, a senior policies specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group in Denver. Most recently Indiana adopted a law removing the standards from its books.

But, of more than 300 bills filed in legislatures across the country, the majority move implementation forward, Thatcher said.

In Oklahoma, the state Department of Education doesn’t have a total figure of just how much has been spent to implement the standards. Reversing them could undo a lot of work, education officials say, and potentially risk federal funds and leave districts to rely on old textbooks.

“If we need to regroup and start over again, that will be a big expense,” Simmons said. “I think teachers are tired of gearing up and backing off, and gearing up again.”

In Edmond, schools have implemented the standards, said Superintendent David Goin, who noted the biggest change for students is a focus on developing cognitive and analytical skills.

Goin said he’s heard from teachers on both sides, but he’s convinced that Common Core is a good program that leaves control in local hands.

“I think that it will take some time for our full implementation to reach the point where everybody can be comfortable because it’s a transition period we are in right now, but to throw it all out, probably isn’t very practical,” he said. “We don’t want to start all over from scratch. All that time, all that money.”


Political battle

Common Core proponents say it’s the name that’s become toxic, and the political battle inside the Capitol is stoked by a fringe group spreading fear and misinformation.

Critics say the standards are developmentally inappropriate, rely too much on testing, and wrest control out of local hands. Critics also suggest the standards aren’t rigorous enough.

The debate — to undo two sentences tucked inside a bill that overwhelmingly passed the Legislature in 2010 — has become one of the most divisive issues in Oklahoma politics.

Jeffery Corbett, president of the Oklahoma PTA, which supports the standards, said he puzzles at how something that started as a bipartisan effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers  has become so political.

Recently, House Minority leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, criticized Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who is also chair of the National Governors Association, for flip-flopping on the issue. Fallin and State Superintendent Janet Barresi were both elected after the state had adopted the Common Core legislation in 2010.

“Because of a flurry of pressure from a fringe element in the political spectrum, she has caved,” Inman said of Fallin during an interview. “Her leadership is non-existent on this issue. For the head of the organization that helped create these standards to turn around and let them die under her watch is an embarrassment.”

Fallin’s people fired back and accused Inman of running “a partisan sideshow.”

“It has become clear that there are still widespread concerns about Common Core and potential federal interference,” said Alex Weintz, the governor’s spokesman. “In light of these concerns, the governor has said she will work with the Legislature to create an appropriate substitute that guarantees high academic standards and Oklahoma’s independence in the process of creating these standards.”


Training teachers

Brittany Corona, a research assistant with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the issue with the Common Core is that the standards have not been field-tested, and there’s a certain amount of “blind trust that these really are rigorous standards.”

In Oklahoma, one complaint among education officials is not about the rigorousness of the standards. It’s that legislators haven’t made much money available to launch the core.

Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said implementation of the standards is going well — in districts that fund it correctly. She said it’s not going well in places where the process hasn’t been properly funded or teachers haven’t had training. Given that the topic is so divisive among teachers, Hampton’s group hasn’t taken a position.

“It’s not an issue with us as to what the standards are or what you call them, because we do want standards. But we want the testing part of it to be right,” she said.

Even the Republicans spearheading the effort to change the core admit they don’t know what the final product will look like. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said the outcome could simply give the standards a new name.

Goin said legislators need to be careful in how far they distance the state from Common Core because most new textbooks are being developed to align with the new standards. Depending on what the Legislature decides, he said, Oklahoma educators may find themselves utilizing old textbooks.


Misleading messages?

The approach that legislators take could also have high stakes financially.

If Oklahoma repeals its Common Core law but can’t agree on a substitute, the state could lose access to federal funding. Oklahoma receives $148 million in Title I funding — federal aid for schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families.

The state also gets a waiver for districts that fail standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. That’s because Oklahoma adopted the Common Core, which meets the federal threshold for rigorous college and career readiness standards.

Without that waiver, about 90 percent of  schools will be required to set aside 20 percent of their federal funding, or about $26 million, said Tricia Pemberton, assistant director of communications for the state Department of Education.

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