October 6, 2015

Experts: State’s Draft of Education Standards Has Many Flaws

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Two of the three experts brought in to help Oklahoma create new academic standards say numerous flaws in the third draft show Oklahoma will likely fall short of creating the best standards in the nation.

The flaws highlight the monumental challenge lawmakers gave to the state Education Department to write new standards, but also clash with the rhetoric that surrounded the process at the start.

Moments before voting to repeal the Common Core academic standards in 2014, lawmakers said the state would make its own standards rivaling the best in the nation. But experts who reviewed a third draft of the pending math and English standards said it’s clear those statements were just “political rhetoric.”

Sandra Stotsky, a former Massachusetts Department of Education official who helped write that state’s former English standards, once considered the best in the nation, was especially harsh about Oklahoma’s draft.

Stotsky also helped write the Common Core English standards, which she ultimately turned her back on.

Stotsky’s main concern is that the current draft provides no guidance to teachers.

“You’re close to the bottom of the basement, I am sorry to say, because there is no content in them,” said Stotsky. “These are pious statements of academic goals. These are not standards. A standard is a criterion by which you grade something.”

Stotsky was one of three experts brought to Oklahoma in February to help the state map out the process to write new standards. The other experts included Larry Gray, a math professor at the University of Minnesota, and Jane Schielack, of Texas A&M.

Schielack did not respond to requests for comment.

Gray was more optimistic about the math draft, but stopped short of saying they will push Oklahoma to the top of the nation.

“If you’re saying you want these to be top in the nation, and the type of things other states want to adopt full hog, I can say that is too much for first timers,” Gray said. “To ask them to lead the nation is kind of silly. It’s just talk.”

Gray added that the first math standards he helped Minnesota write were less than stellar. A second attempt resulted in math standards many experts consider among the best in the nation.

That meant a second attempt at writing standards in Oklahoma could lead to better results, Gray said.

Gray added he was encouraged to see major changes made between Oklahoma’s second and third draft, but added there are still problems.

While the state copied several portions of Minnesota’s math standards, some of the Oklahoma-written sections incorporate inappropriate elements of algebra, Gray said. One example is a heavier focus on logarithms over exponentials.

The mixture of Oklahoma and Minnesota standards also created an odd flow in how students progress with mathematical concepts through middle and high school.

The state Department of Education declined to comment because the drafts will be revised before a fourth and final version is released in November.

Stotsky raised concerns that many of the English standards remain the same, word for word, between elementary, middle and high school. They also fail to dictate how students should progress to harder content, especially in reading.

“There’s no sense of what the level of reading difficulty is,” Stotsky said. “In ninth grade, they could be reading ‘The Three Little Pigs.’”

Another concern is the way the state divides critical reading elements for students. That content is divided into literary and informational.

Stotsky said that division is an element straight from Common Core, and said literature should instead be divided into poetry, fiction, nonfiction, dramatic literature and classical and traditional literature.

The drafts also lack any literature standards tied to Oklahoma’s history and culture.

Those would further distance the drafts from Common Core, Stotsky said.

Part of the problem is the state still hasn’t released a list of examples and materials for teachers to use in the classroom. That would include a list of books, documents and authors.

Those are supposed to help teachers understand how to teach the standards in the classroom, or to see material students should be able to work with.

Stotsky said the next month provides plenty of time to get the standards on the right track.

“You’ve got plenty of time,” she said. “All you need are a few knowledgeable English teachers and people who teach literature to get together on several weekends, and then add some examples.”

The third drafts of Oklahoma’s standards were released in September, and a final draft will be released in November. That draft will go to the Regents for Higher Education for approval before returning to the state Board of Education for a vote.

  • Joe Eddins

    Your excellent coverage of the creation of standards, and your excellent coverage of how the lowest 25% of students have not been progressing raised a serious question. Any standard that works for the above average student as they prepare for college would make teaching the 200,000 lowest achieving children in our schools a real challenge. So challenging we may not find many career teachers to work in classrooms with a high percentage of low scoring students. How long can any one tell these children they can graduate from college if they will… What do you tell their parents if they come to a second parent teacher conference. How many times do we require remediation when it fails to catch the student up with the standards. This is child abuse.

  • Aimee Myers

    The criticisms offered by the ELA “expert” is very disappointing. In comparison to the Math expert, the person offering a critique of the ELA standards sounds angry and does not support her arguement with logic. I would have really liked to have seen some constructive criticism rather than a bashing. The standards for ELA are not perfect by any means, but many educators are working in a collaborative effort to develop these standards. This would explain a lack of micro-managing in the new standards. The new standards offer more of a goal for teachers, but allows for the teacher to be a professional and a critical thinker. Stosky’s critiques seem to say that teachers are not smart enough to have a guide that isn’t a lock-stop manual. Disappointed in Oklahoma Watch for publishing from only one point of view without investigating how real teachers feel about the standards. The Math expert has constructive criticisms to offer and some positive comments, the ELA expert sounds like there is an agenda.

  • Chris Goering

    Kudos to Oklahoma for using a transparent and democratic process to write and revise these standards. No, they aren’t perfect and never will be but they are the work of educators, parents, and community members from your state. They are your standards and from my view, that’s how it should be. No educational standard has the power to account for the fact that our country now ranks 27th in terms of childhood poverty of developed nations. We can create a bunch of standards and write a bunch of tests and hire the best and brightest teachers in the world but the reality is, until we reform the social context of our country, none of this is going to change the educational outlook for Oklahoma or any state. Until the good folks of Oklahoma and America get serious about the fact 1 in 4 kids goes to school hungry, I hope these are used appropriately to gently guide curriculum and instruction, not to dictate the content or pace of learning for all kids.

  • Shelly Durham

    I’m also disappointed in the critique of the ELA standards. As a knowledgable teacher, I appreciate so much about the standards – from the categories with both a writing and reading focus to to emphasis on reading and writing as processes. Handing me a document with specific and lockstep instructions would inhibit much that I consider to be the Art and Science of teaching. The specific examples that came with Common Core – risked taking teacher focus off the student and his development and placing it , instead, on texts that were less engaging and more difficult – often because students did yet not have the context or schemas for those particular texts. This new document gives me structure and foundational support, while respecting my expertise as a teacher. I applaud the diligence and work of those who created the new standards. By the way, this is NOT Oklahoma’s first run at standards. This has been an on-going process since the late 80s (I think). We were one of the first states to create standards. Not only do we have a history of wisdom in this area, the members of this committee are steeped in current research, practical classroom application, and the practice of respecting the professionals they serve.

  • CJ

    If Stotsky wrote the Common Core English standards, then I am not sure I value her advice. I felt they were developmentally inappropriate and beyond the capability of many students. She ultimately turned her back on them. Why did she feel they were valid in the first place?
    I too wish the standards gave more grade specific descriptions. This was also a problem with the PASS standards when I served on a committee examing them many years ago. The problem is then in determining what is appropriate at every level, which is much debated. Several standards do mention “grade level appropriate” materials in Draft 3, and a few topics are broken down with emphasis on different levels. A little more clarity and the example texts would improve them without making them too rigid.

  • Lorie

    The state department is doing a very good job of listening to input from teachers during this process. The expert mentioned that the standards should include example text for teachers to use. This is one of the reasons Common Core was repealed. At our last meeting I suggested that instead of promoting specific curricula or text, the standards should include lexile bands so that teachers can choose literature that is the most appropriate for their class. To me the so called expert is confusing curriculum with standards. The standards are the concepts the student should learn and curricula are the tools one uses to teach the concept.

  • Sonya

    My sincere applause to the many educators who invested time and hard work in drafting the proposed standards. I am grateful for those working toward the betterment of Oklahoma education.
    I thoroughly concur the rhetoric in the article is exceedingly harsh, however, there is an element of validity.
    As a teacher, I need a clear scope and sequence of exactly what skills and concepts are taught per grade level, so I can best prepare my students for the next grade, without the redundancy of covering what has already been mastered. I appreciate the freedom to choose what selections, resources, and tools are utilized in my classroom. It makes me more effective in the classroom.
    However, in conjunction with that freedom, specific, measurable skills need to play a huge part of determing those elements. If teachers are given a clear picture of exactly what our kids need to know per grade level, which can be clearly measured, it sets a solid foundation for our students and teachers.
    Again, I appreciate all those dedicated to the standards revision process, and am thankful to have a voice.

  • Nate Robson

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I wanted to address one of the common concerns which is curriculum versus standards, and how that ties into the examples. When you hear people talk about examples, they are not talking about setting specific criteria. In the case of English standards, examples tied to a standard could include a sample test question a student should be able to answer, or an author or book that meets the desired difficulty level students should be able to read at. The examples are supposed to help teachers see what specific standards look like in practice. Stotsky would agree with all of you that good examples do not dictate the curriculum teachers or schools have to use.

  • I agree with you Nate that examples of how standards can be addressed are not inherently a bad thing. I do offer that, for example, the exemplar list of texts in the Common Core have been grossly misused. Here’s something I’ve written on that issue.

    https://www.academia.edu/14874644/Exemplars_and_Epitaphs_Defending_Young_Adult_Literature

  • Shelly Durham

    The problem with examples occurs when testing companies choose their examples from the same era – and focus on the text rather than the developmental appropriateness or engagement for the student. When examples drive the tests – curriculum is influenced – especially in our current environment of high stakes testing. As my district transitioned us to prepare for the new tests, my eighth-grade students took benchmark tests filled with numerous excerpts for which they had no context. For example, a piece by Roald Dahl involving a train ride across India. If you want to know what a 13-year old knows, ask the same question with material for which she/he has a schema or context. I’m all for examples – as long as they are developmentally appropriate and accessible to all our students.