Are Oklahoma’s Tougher School Standards in Jeopardy?

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It’s unclear, however, if opponents have the political support to halt a program that the state has been gradually implementing for three years.

PDK/Gallup Poll: Two-thirds of Americans have never heard of Common Core standards.

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 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 aligned  to Common Core, it would make it harder to compare results among states, as well as between 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. (See editor’s note below.) 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.

Editor’s Note, Aug. 26, 2013: A spokesman for the Oklahoma House contacted Oklahoma Watch to report that Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, believes he was incorrectly quoted in the story, that he does not plan to introduce legislation that would repeal Common Core standards for English language arts and math. The writer, Carol Cole-Frowe, stands by her reporting of Nelson’s comments. Nelson issued the following statement: “I’m still visiting with constituents, educators and others about the merits of the Common Core Standards already adopted by the state and do not have plans to introduce legislation repealing existing standards. I do intend to file legislation to prohibit the State from adopting the science and social studies Common Core State Standards.”

  • James England

    Common Core, relabeled as Oklahoma Academic Standards, is a thinly disguised federal mandate that does not raise academic achievement, but is a scheme to test kids like lab rats, make them conform to a standard of sameness. They will be the continued subject of massive data collection and intentionally reduced to compliant robots of the government and corporate cronies. The end result will be underperforming, less than creative compliant workers, not free adult citizens. No thank you.

    • robert fairbanks, colonel, usaf

      I pray that Mr. England is not, and has not ever been, a teacher. To be blunt, he has not a scintilla of knowledge about Common Core or the purpose of academic standards. He is an example of why Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of literacy and health – he’s just plain and simple not knowledgeable of the facts. How, for example, is becoming competent in mathematics or the English language going to make a student a “compliant robot.” Makes no sense. Moreover, education is no longer a local issue, it is a matter of national security which makes it a federal matter. If the United States continues on the downward slope of producing illiterate, non-thinking citizens, it will eventually lose its lofty place in the community of nations.

  • Anne Solomon

    You do not want to emulate Texas. They were at the bottom of the heap before they decided to hurl themselves further into the abyss. I worked with Texas high school graduates for 2o years and about 65% are not ready for college when they graduate.

  • While I appreciate the effort made by the author to represent both sides of the issue here, the use of the term “tea party” is more than a bit noxious.

    Really, (unlike Huckabee’s idea of conservatism) Common Core is opposed by true conservatives because it is a clear usurpation of local control. No, this is NOT a federal takeover of education – the progenitors of the initiative were way too savvy to allow the feds to become overtly entangled in the process – but because the standards were written OUT OF THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA by a handful of people who copyrighted them and then passed them on to the NGA for dissemination to their respective states, the Common Core flies in the face of the local control convention MOST Oklahomans believe education should follow.

    While Brian Hunt seems like a very nice man, I would like to point to a video of him at the Understanding Common Core Forum in Tulsa on August 10th ( There, he told a woman who objected to his comment that he was “not concerned” about the amount of data being collected on children in public education, that he would not study the issue to learn more because he simply didn’t have time.

    I think this personifies the issue to which opponents most object – the fact that the Common Core initiative was put into place mainly by bureaucrats without teaching experience before anyone had the ‘time’ (or ability) to study them.

    Here in Oklahoma, the standards were adopted by a Democrat governor (Brad Henry) via executive order and then passed into state law via the Legislature BEFORE the standards were even available to read in their final form. Now, Oklahoma’s ‘conservative’ Republican governor touts their value – again, without a single modicum of study on the topic at any level – all while working up to – and finally becoming – the head of the NGA – the very organization tasked with pushing them down to their states by way of a private organization called “Achieve” by way of a private organization called “Student Achievement Partners”.

    How is this NOT disingenuous? How has Oklahoma NOT made our state’s children guinea pigs for a non-local, non-tested, non-studied initiative to be paid for by each and every taxpayer in the state? Do you buy a car sight unseen? All most opponents wish to do is return education to the local control of the community which is always best at serving its members. Once the standards – and associated nonsense (TLE, A-F, Common Core testing) – are out of state law, communities can decide for themselves if they represent what is best for their members and their children.

  • n2motherhood

    I’ve been looking into Common Core for over a year now. Why are we so trusting? We can look at history and see what the federal government has done, what it is doing today…and the fact that the Federal Government is so excited about Common Core should turn on flashing lights in all our minds. Its not just the expensive CC standards they are asking our kids to take; its not just teachers teaching to the test; its what is being quietly, slowly being tucked into CC. Should we be focused ONLY on the standardized tests? No. If we are a parent, a guardian, a grandparent who is responsible for children attending school, then we need to be educated about what our kids are being taught. My children are all grown, but who now have children on their own. I stumbled onto Common Core, I can’t even tell you how I started being concerned, or why I became so active in learning all I could about it. Maybe it was the fact that the past two years I have been deeply studying our governments history, being wakened from a deep sleep when the economy affected my husbands’ job and our whole lives changed…maybe it was all of it. Too many of us think that teachers know what they are doing, that our administrators know what they are doing, that our State BOE know what they are doing, but most of us understand that our State governments are somewhat confused.
    Common Core was a “weight” attached to funding. The economy has made it where less people have jobs, which means less money coming into the States to fund education (which is a different issue I won’t address here). So here comes the Federal Government to the rescue, “Hey, Let me help…I’ll give you such and such dollars, but you will have to take on Common Core and put it into all your schools; It’s harmless, it’s just going to allow all the states to be on the same page so that if children move from one state to another the will remain on the same page … By the way, I have some beautiful ocean property in Kansas I will sell cheap.”
    What will our children be taught with this new Common Core? How will it effect the way our children have already been taught? What adjustments, frustrations will it cause the students who have been in school for five or more years who are going to have to start all over learning the Common Core way? and teachers, I’ve already heard frustrations from teachers… I, personally, am finding indoctrination of progressive-ism all over CC … Maybe not today, but if we don’t stop this CC train, down the road we are going to have a different generation of people who are going to be willing to live under socialism/communism.”

  • As an Oklahoma first grade teacher recently testified at the “Understanding Common Core” forum (filmed and on YouTube):

    “My name is Olivia Goodwin and I’m a first grade classroom teacher. You have used the phrase ‘if Common Core is implemented’ . We’ve been implementing it in our classrooms for almost two years…. so it’s not a question of if. It’s already happening.

    “We’re spending our own time and money doing a lot of professional development on how to incorporate it into our classrooms because there is no state funding or professional development, or it’s really vague.

    “With that being said: you’ve said that Common Core is going to be raising the bar and increasing the rigor. From my first grade standards in math, nothing has become more rigorous. The standards are exactly the same as what the past was. They’ve just taken some away.

    “I’m no longer teaching my first graders about money. They don’t get any money skills in kindergarten. They no longer get money skills in first grade. They don’t get any money skills until second grade. Calendar skills are gone. Fractions are gone. Patterning is gone. That’s all moved up to a higher grade. So how is Common Core more rigorous when in my personal experience with my first grade math standards, nothing has become more rigorous? They’ve just taken stuff away.”

    In response, one of the forum leaders waffles for awhile: “I can speak to what I’ve read so far… They are focused on making sure students learn… to build on knowledge over time… I’m not a teacher so I don’t know all the terminology, but it is an attempt to raise standards.”

    The elementary teacher then repeated, “But how is that bar being raised if it’s taking away a portion of standards that we previously taught, but it’s not being made more rigorous?”

    Then the forum speaker zaid, “I don’t have an answer to your specific issue… I think it would be an issue that … What does your principal say?”

    The teacher says, “We don’t have a choice. We have to teach Common Core.”

    It’s not really about educational standards! It’s about liberty and that vital right called local control.

  • Lynn Hab

    Common Core amounts to a disservice to our students. It puts them at least two years behind their peers in high-performing countries, and leaves them ill-prepared for authentic college course work. Why is there NO Calculus in the Standards? And only half as much Algebra II?
    Those who doubt that this low-level workforce-development is the goal of Common Core should ponder the admission of Jason Zimba, one of the chief drafters of the math standards.
    In a public meeting of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 2010, Dr. Zimba testified that Common Core is designed to prepare students only for a non-selective community college, not a university.
    Before states forge ahead with a set of standards created, owned, copyrighted, and controlled by anonymous interests outside the state, they should be aware that those interests seem to be motivated by the desire for minimal workforce-development rather than genuine math education.
    Who do we call to point this out? My state superintendent? My legislator? Who can adjust these standards at the behest of a teacher, parent, principal etc? No, I want Oklahoma Standards developed by Oklahomans for Oklahomans in Oklahoma and controlled by Oklahomans!

    • robert fairbanks, colonel, usaf

      “Oklahoma Standards developed by Oklahomans for Oklahomans in Oklahoma and controlled by Oklahomans!” Wow! Oklahoma students in general, and adults, are at the bottom of the literacy chart for the country. And, you want these ignorant citizens to develop the educational standards for Oklahoma’s future citizens. Classic case of the “blind leading the blind.”