By August 28, 2014 Uncategorized 7 Comments

Shortly after the legislature’s passage of House Bill 3399 in May 2014 which repealed common core state standards in Oklahoma, I posted a blog titled: “Arne Doesn’t Have to Do This” to explain that Secretary Duncan had choices when it came to the reauthorization of our state’s ESEA waiver.

As a somewhat morbid example of a similarly capricious decision-making process, I shared an example from the movie “No Country for Old Men.” In particular, the scene where the merciless killer Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, tells the widow of the man he killed earlier that he now has to take her life because he “gave his word” to her husband. She tells Anton, “You don’t have to do this.” As a compromise, he flips a coin and tells her to call it. The underlying message is clear—call the coin correctly and she lives—call it wrong and she dies. If you have seen the movie, you know how this ends up for her. If not, here is the clip. (Click HERE if clip does not appear)

While the stakes relative to our ESEA waiver are clearly not as serious, one thing is common to these two situations. The person “in charge” gets to make the decision—not the coin and not the pieces of paper that constitute our waiver application. Just like it was Anton Chigurh’s choice in this scene, it was Arne Duncan’s choice relative to his department’s decision today to pull our state waiver. We apparently called the coin incorrectly.

I will get to the reasons stated by Duncan’s Department of Education to deny the waiver request in just a minute.

Before we go there, it is important to remind ourselves what the ESEA waiver request policy actually says and, just as importantly, what it DOES NOT say.

The policy requires that states requesting waivers: “…must submit a request that addresses each of the following four principles, consistent with the definitions and timelines described later in this document, to increase the quality of instruction for students and improve student academic achievement in the State and its [districts].”

Note the sleight of hand. The law expects states to explain how waivers would “increase the quality of instruction” and “improve academic achievement.” Yet, Mr. Duncan’s Department of Education requires adherence to its preferred “principles” as the only routes to such improvement.

Further, the Department forces states to pledge allegiance to ALL of the four principles—even when these are not applicable to the specific flexibility being requested.

What are the four principles?

1. College- and Career-Ready Expectations for All Students

2. State-Developed Differentiated Recognition, Accountability, and Support

3. Supporting Effective Instruction and Leadership (i.e., teacher and principal evaluation)

4. Reducing Duplication and Unnecessary Burden

It is difficult to argue against any of these specific principles. They all sound pretty reasonable. However, try to find the wording in the original ESEA legislation where the Congress declared that a state’s waiver would hinge on its embracing this particular set of subjective standards—and being able to satisfy the Secretary of Education that it will indeed implement them all. In short, nothing in current law gives Secretary Duncan the authority to delineate the specific requirements for a ESEA waiver. Rather, the waiver language seems to gives states autonomy to “increase the quality of instruction” and “improve academic achievement” by whatever means they feel is most effective.

So let’s take a minute to digest what happened today. Here is a copy of the letter that was sent to Superintendent Barresi this afternoon. Pay particular attention to the wording in the top paragraph of page two.

Let’s be clear. Oklahoma did not lose our waiver because we repealed common core. Instead, the Assistant Secretary, Deborah Delisle, justifies her decision to deny the waiver based on the fact that our state was not able to secure a ruling from our regents of higher education that the 2010 PASS standards for English Language Arts and Math were “college- and career-ready.” The feds gave our state department 60 days to obtain such evidence. Our response back to them—it seems—was “we are not able to do that and cannot even give a timetable on when we can.”

So what happened?  I have read that the regents have begun a review process, but how long will this take. Was there any attempt on the part of Superintendent Barresi and the SDE to impress the importance of quick action on the part of the regents for this “college- and career-ready endorsement?”  If not, why not? If a review is ongoing, why was this not communicated to the Department of Education? In our rush to create an elaborate process for the development of “new Oklahoma standards,” did we not simultaneously call on Higher Ed to review the existing standards and give direction as to what we needed to improve?

I know many teachers and school leaders believe that the CCSS-based, Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) are superior to the previous PASS standards. But, at this time, there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that they are more “college- and career-ready” than the standards we already had.  In fact, it would be absolutely erroneous to label any set of untested academic standards as being able to produce higher student achievement or better outcomes with no longitudinal levels or trends to substantiate the claim. The bottom line is that the CCSS may be superior to PASS and may be able to better prepare students for college-level rigor…or they may be worse…or make no difference at all.  At this point, any opinion one way or the other is simply that—an opinion, devoid of supporting evidence.

This has become silly! I am sure that the people who fill the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education are all intelligent folks with higher degrees and special endorsements. But not one of them has the capacity to label anything as college- and career- ready. What does this even mean? Many of them graduated from high school and college long before our state had any set of real academic standards. Their colleges and universities are filled with students who graduated from Oklahoma high schools when PASS was the only game in town. Scores of former PASS-educated students are now filling high paying careers in a wide range of professions, from electricians to doctors to architects. So, what would be the “magic” language or words within the document that would make one set of standards “college- and career-ready” and another set fall short? There isn’t any!

This is a subjective decision with no basis in fact. There is absolutely no evidence that CCSS will improve outcomes or increase college-and career- readiness. These are all games being played by bureaucrats to push their individual agendas for school reform.

Again, it is critical to remember that in July 2010, an outside entity– the Fordham Institute– conducted a state-by-state review of academic standards and compared them to the common core standards. Their analysis resulted in Oklahoma PASS standards for math and language arts both earning a B+ and ranking in the top ten nationally!

You don’t believe me? Take a look at these charts below which show that the Oklahoma PASS standards, which many are saying are now saying are just horrible, were “too close to call” compared to the quality of the common core standards. Since the Fordham Institute reviewed our standards in context with every other state’s standards, their rankings are particularly noteworthy. So, why did we not ask our higher education regents to label the PASS standards as college- and career-ready, while simultaneously beginning a process for a thorough review and improvement process?

Here was the “bottom line” that accompanied the Fordham Institute’s comparison of our PASS standards with the common core standards:

For English-Language Arts: “Oklahoma’s standards are better organized and more clearly presented than Common Core. The objectives are generally free of jargon, describe measurable expectations, and clearly illustrate the growth and progression of rigor expected through the grades. Oklahoma uses more standard-specific examples to help clarify expectations and treats literary genres and theircharacteristics in more detail. The Oklahoma standards also prioritize essential writing genres by grade spans, which Common Core does not. On the other hand, Oklahoma fails to include any expectations for Kindergarten, while those presented in the Common Core are generally strong. In addition, the Common Core addresses the analysis of informational text in more detail than the Oklahoma standards. Common Core also includes a list specifying the quality and complexity of student reading as well as sample student writing. Such enhancements would significantly improve Oklahoma’s standards.”

For Mathematics: “Oklahoma’s standards are generally clear and well presented. Standards are briefly stated and frequently include examples, making them easier to read and follow than Common Core. In addition, the high school content is organized so that standard addressing specific topics, such as quadratic functions, are grouped together in a mathematically coherent way. The organization of the Common Core is more difficult to navigate, in part because standards dealing with related topics sometimes appear separately rather than together. While Oklahoma’s standards provide well-organized high school courses, they are missing some of the advanced content for high school that is covered in Common Core. In addition, the coverage of arithmetic displays some serious weaknesses. Common Core explicitly requires standard methods and procedures, and the inclusion of these important details would enhance Oklahoma’s standards.

In other words, it does appear we have some work to do to improve our current standards to reflect best practices for teaching and learning. At the same time, the standards are not nearly as bad as some as saying.

In today’s press conference, Superintendent Barresi stated that we should use Massachusetts as a model for our new standards. Look at the charts again. Massachusetts’s ELA standards earned an A- to our B+ while their math standards earned the same grade as ours.

Why did Superintendent Barresi not use Washington D.C. (which earned A’s in both areas) as the model? Because their student achievement is much lower than Oklahoma’s. The lesson from both examples is that higher standards DO NOT necessarily equate to higher student achievement. Even in Massachusetts they have many students who score below basic level on the NAEP test, even with so-called “wonderful” standards. The same is true in reverse. Students in Vermont perform well above the national average on the NAEP math and reading tests, yet their standards are rated as an F and D respectively. How could this possibly be?  It is almost like some other factors, like poverty and home instability, are somehow skewing the results in other states. We ought to take a look at this!

Since the regents will have no empirical evidence to label any new set of state standards more “college- and career-ready” that the standards we currently have, I suggest we just play the game– call them whatever the feds want us to call them this week–and move on down the road.

If we are not going to do this, then let’s take the loss of our waiver in stride and double down. Let’s dump the value-added teacher evaluations that we were also forced to adopt with our original ESEA waiver. When fully implemented, VAM will be far more damaging to schools and teachers than any of the reforms which preceded it.

Let’s show Arne Duncan and the Department of Education that we also have choices. If enough states eventually follow suit, this adventure in federal overreach will collapse under its own weight. Then, maybe, Congress might be forced to do its job and revise and reauthorize NCLB, something they were statutorily required to do seven years ago!

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