Super Duper Academic Standards?

In my previous post, I shared that I would be devoting the next few posts to the topic of writing new Oklahoma academic standards. I recognize that it is not necessarily the most exciting (or humorous) topic to be writing about during the summer, but it really is an important discussion for us to be having.

I also am quite aware that a few readers will disagree with some of what I will share over these next few posts. As we witnessed this past spring, the debate about academic standards creates some strange bed fellows. The coalition that worked to eliminate common core standards from our state was rather eclectic and included people from every point on the political and ideological spectrum.

I have already received some constructive feedback on my suggestion that we just readopt the 2010 PASS standards and move on. There are a significant number of educators who believe strongly that the common core standards were a significant improvement over PASS. My own teachers tell me the same thing. There is a lot of frustration over the quick repeal of standards for which we had spent three years developing curriculum and instruction.

I completely get this. Again, my stated purpose for starting this blog last year was to generate discussion about important education issues and introduce each other to different perspectives. We will not agree on everything. That’s okay. In fact, this is good! We have gotten to the point we are in this country because we have too much “group think” and not enough healthy discord. So, by all means, continue to comment, send me tweets, tell me I’m wrong. Just stay involved in the discussion.

I also recognize that there is not a chance in hell that we will go back to the 2010 PASS standards, even if Janet Barresi tells us to go there. Let’s face it—the ACT, SAT, and NAEP tests will all be aligned to common core standards. Whatever we eventually adopt in Oklahoma will have to be similar to common core to allow our students to be competitive on these national assessments. That’s just reality.

In yesterday’s post, I also provided a brief synopsis of the “standards movement” in America over the past 25 years. Despite having very little to show for the billions of dollars shoveled into the pit of rigorous “college and career” standards, high stakes testing, and school accountability measures, the reformers continue to throw good money after bad.

In Oklahoma in the past ten years, we have adopted high school graduation requirements tied to state testing; a third grade retention plan tied to state testing; an A-F school report card tied to state testing; and a new teacher evaluation system…yes, tied to state testing. These reforms have cost taxpayers millions of dollars and generated large profits for out-of-state testing companies. The results are unremarkable. The average composite ACT score in Oklahoma in the year 2013 was 20.8, the same level as students in 2000, the year prior to implementation of NCLB. Our student’s scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) have trended slightly upwards, mirroring the national trend.

With the passage of House Bill 3399 eliminating common core from Oklahoma, we are now about to embark on a two-year standards writing process for Math and English Language Arts (ELA), a journey that our State Superintendent likens to a holy war:

I’m determined. I am determined. Kids in Oklahoma deserve this. You deserve this. God has blessed this state and he blesses these children and I’m not going to let anything get in their way. They deserve the blessings of this state and the blessings of this country. And I need you to help me rebuild that. We are going to build a house.

Anybody that has any question what we’re doing, read Nehemiah. Open up your Bibles and read Nehemiah. I want you to put on your breast plate and I want you to fight off the enemy at the same time you’re rebuilding the wall. Because there’s a lot of people, a lot of enemies are going to try to creep up the back of your neck and say you can’t do it, it can’t be done. Do me a favor and tell ‘em to go to hell. We’ve got a wall to build. ‘Cause I’m gonna be in there with you, too. I’m going to take the hits. I don’t care, I don’t care. And then we will be, we will be an example to the rest of the country about how you produce a wonderful child that is educated and ready to take control of their life.

Well, we know one thing for sure! Superintendent Barresi seems to be taking this process very seriously. However, we must also remember that it was Janet Barresi and Governor Mary Fallin who chose to jettison our previous PASS standards in favor of CCSS three years ago.

Admittedly, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback. However, if our Governor and state superintendent had any gumption back in 2011, they would have politely told Arne Duncan and his Department of Education, “We already have standards, thank you very much.” But after the feds threw hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of common core-aligned national assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balance), the pressure for states to adopt common core was irresistibly strong.

At this point, we have no choice but to look forward. We do so with the possibility that this entire piece of legislation has a chance of being thrown out by the Oklahoma Supreme Court because of how the Legislature wrote in procedures allowing them to control the standards writing process. Who knows what will happen next? It is a mess to be sure.

So let me get to the questions I ended with yesterday:

1. What do we mean by college- and career-ready standards?  

I am already tired of hearing this phrase. Hasn’t the role of high schools forever been to prepare students for college and careers? With “college and career ready,” are we talking about preparing students to go to Harvard to pursue a Pre-Med degree or earn an associate’s degree as a Paralegal from Tulsa Community College? And which careers are we talking about? A recent Business Week article stated that 65% of jobs that students starting school today will fill don’t even exist yet. So how can we create content standards for careers we are not aware of?  Diane Ravitch, in her 2013 book “Reign of Error,” said: “There is no evidence that these (common core)  standards or tests are linked to the skills and knowledge students need for their wide range of college and career choices.”

We are told that we need to increase the rigor for students because up to 40% of college freshman are having to take remedial math. This is a topic for another blog post, but I can suggest a simple solution. Stop requiring all students to take college math, hence there would be no need for remediation. A large percentage of college majors do not require higher math, so why are we forcing kids to take it? The kids having to take remedial math courses are not likely the future doctors, scientists, and engineers anyway. I loved math as a student, yet have never used any math beyond basic algebra or geometry (and not much of either), other than in math class. If enrollment in mathematics is a barrier to students completing college, why would we keep it in place? Have students take personal finance, consumer math, or better yet, ballroom dance and let them move on.

In short, let’s just get rid of the “college and career” jargon. We could call them: Oklahoma’s Incredible, Super Duper Rigorous, World Class, Grade A, best standards EVER!”  That would get other states’ attention, but it would be silly! I have a better suggestion. Let’s dump the vague superlatives and just call them what they are: academic standards. Nothing more, nothing less.

2. What does it mean when people say the new ELA and Math standards will reflect “Oklahoma values?”

 This one is even more confusing than college and career ready. Which Oklahoma values are we going to follow? I tried to Google “Oklahoma values” and all I came up with was a YouTube video from Governor Fallin’s 2010 campaign in which she stated that “Oklahoma values are faith, freedom, and family.” Good enough, I am also in favor of those things. I do hope we are not talking about the set of Oklahoma values which contribute to our state’s bottom ten ranking in childhood poverty (6th); teen pregnancy (10th); divorce (5th); domestic violence (5th); and female incarceration (1st). Regardless, I am not sure how a discussion of values works its way into the process for developing new academic standards for math and language arts. It is just pandering to a certain group of voters. Values are important but they add an emotional and personal perspective that is not necessary for writing strong standards.

3. What does it mean when we say we “will develop the best standards in the nation?” 

Define the word “best” in this context. Does this mean the easiest standards or the hardest ones? The fewest or the most? The most rigid or the most flexible? The PASS standards have been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I understand what this means, but do we now move to 1/2 mile wide and two inches deep. How many standards are enough to be the best? Up to a few months ago, Dr. Barresi believed that the common core standards were the best.

I think we can all agree we would like academic standards that are clear, concise, and coherent. After that, we will start to disagree.

If we want to have the most rigorous standards, that’s easy. We simply ignore research on child development and academic readiness and mandate that all seventh grade students complete Algebra I, read Beowulf, and write expository essays on the effect of climate change on the migration patterns of the Great Northern Owl, among other things. Oops, sorry—I forgot we can’t talk about climate change in Oklahoma. It’s certainly not part of our values. Notice how emotional things can get with the mere mention of a controversial topic like climate change or evolution?

According to the reformers, if our standards are adequately rigorous, and we refuse to water them down for anyone, then everyone will be guaranteed educational equity. Thereby, by fiat, everybody will achieve equal excellence.

To reformers, it works like this:  if a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, we can turn her into a world-class jumper by raising the bar to six feet and yelling, “jump higher.” This is a ridiculous proposition, but at the very least, the reformers will be able to use her poor performance to punish her coach. Again, standards assume that all kids are essentially the same. This is a fallacy.

The bottom line: creating the best, most rigorous standards in the name of excellence for all— raising the bar for high school graduation— is at best an empty promise; at worst, it is criminal malfeasance.

As author Susan Ohanian states in her book, One Size Fits Few, “handing out standards in the name of preparing everyone to meet the high skills that will be demanded for employment in the twenty-first century is as cynical as handing out menus to homeless people in the name of eradicating hunger.” I will discuss this more in my next post as well as delving into the  most important questions relative to the setting of new academic standards:

How do any set of academic “standards” help those students who are “non-standard?”

What happens to students who fail to meet whatever standards we set?

Who benefits from new academic standards?

Thank for reading and being part of the conversation.

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