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Writing the New Standards: No Rush

August 17, 2014

When the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB 3399 and Governor Fallin signed it into law, school districts throughout the state scrambled to turn the clock back to 2010 – sort of. In many places, the transition from PASS (our old standards) to the Common Core had failed to launch. Teachers, aware of the fact that the state tests were still aligned with PASS, focused on those standards. In other places, the transition was fairly thorough; teachers were using a hybrid of CCSS and PASS. In many of those districts – especially those using some form of curriculum mapping – teachers will continue to use a hybrid set of standards. They will simply align to pass and employ strategies or enhancements from the Common Core as necessary.

My point is that if you walk into any good veteran teacher’s classroom in 2014, you won’t see the exact same thing you saw in 2010, 2006, 2002, and so on. Though some may not like to admit it, our state’s dalliance with de facto national standards has changed us. When the SDE submits new Mathematics and English/Language Arts standards to the legislature in 2016, the finished product will likely reflect that.

I know I have readers who hate the Common Core with a blood red passion. I also know they disapprove when I mention that I do not. I don’t like that the state adopted them when they were in draft form. I don’t like the ratio of non-educators to educators who were on the drafting committees. I don’t like the fact that their development seemed to be for the benefit of testing companies and other vendors, rather than children. The language of the standards was rather boilerplate, if you ask me – which you didn’t. If you were to look at the ACT College Readiness Standards from 2008 or any number of Advanced Placement course syllabi on the College Board website, you’d find similarities to many of the Common Core standards.

So on one hand, good teachers are constantly evolving. On the other hand, some things never change. Children learn to count before they learn to add. Students who can read and write can learn and communicate what they’ve learned. Meanwhile, students who excel at reading and writing stand apart from those who are merely competent. We have always had students at various levels in our schools – struggle, competence, and mastery often sit side-by-side-by-side in the classroom, then eat lunch together in the cafeteria, and then run in a pack on the playground. We can call our standards whatever we want. We can use different words to describe performance levels. We can even spend millions developing new tests to tell us the exact same things we already know. Some children struggle. Some meet the mark. Some excel.

What we do for each of these groups of children is far more important than the standards or the tests. How do we provide remediation? Do we integrate it into instruction or do we pull students away from activities they actually enjoy, essentially sucking whatever joy they feel out of the school day for them. With our competent students, do we push them to find the places where they can stretch their comfort zones, or are we content with their competence? And what energy do we have at the end of the hour/day/year for the students who could have completed our work at a high level before we even started teaching?

I have always believed that a clear standard is a good target for us to have in place. And part of me is still naïve enough to think that some of the Common Core’s developers and promoters believed that too. As much as Oklahoma’s critics have found fault either with the standards or the process by which they came to exist, the larger problem is with the way the SDE stumbled in implementing them. Kevin Hime explained this well on his blog yesterday.

The year is 2011 and Janet is the new state superintendent.  She is attacking public schools and decides common core will save us.  Her stump speech rhetoric centers on how Oklahoma students will fail the Common Core at an alarming rate and how these new standards will make our students college career ready but, WHAT IF Janet Barresi would have be championing the awesome teachers in Oklahoma.  WHAT IF she would have said, “Standards do not make students College and Career Ready, Teachers do!” She may have followed up with “What Oklahoma’s teachers need is the legislature to provide the resources needed to prepare students for the 21st century not new standards.”

As right as he is about the tone Barresi took with educators, one thing we all need to remember is that the Legislature adopted the Common Core in 2010, while Brad Henry was governor and Sandy Garrett was state superintendent. What they adopted, they left to their successors to implement. We also need to remember that Barresi and Fallin were all in on the Common Core, until they started campaigning for their primaries earlier this year.

We already know that Barresi will be replaced. Six months ago, few of us thought Fallin would be in a tough fight for re-election, but she is. Part of the reason is that she still can’t entirely shake the stigma of the Common Core. While she still has to be considered the favorite in the race, momentum is a funny thing. Yes, there is a chance we will have both a new state superintendent and a new governor. Even if only Barresi goes, we should not be excited about the leadership she has in place to do this job for us. It will be a new state superintendent and new staff beneath him or her who will present the new standards to the Legislature in 2016.

Twice already the State Board of Education has balked at approving the SDE’s standard-writing process. Barresi told attendees at Vision 2020 in July that she had discussed the process with Board members, and that they would approve it. That’s just one more thing she has been wrong about.

Even though no process is in place, the SDE has kept the application to serve on committees and a rough calendar of dates on its website as if it were. If you would like to serve on one of the Executive Committees, you’re out of luck. The deadline to apply was Friday. If you want to serve in any capacity, the deadline is still two weeks away.

The same people who failed at implementing the Common Core are forming committees in spite of failing to get SBE approval to begin the development of new state standards. Does that sound like a good plan to you? Their successors will inherit a process that is heading in direction that they might want to change. Start. Stop. Reset. Start over. After the last four years, that is the last thing we need.

Yesterday, Democratic candidate for governor Joe Dorman issued a press release highlighting the approach he favors for developing the new standards. Here’s an excerpt:

“For the third phase of my Classrooms First plan, I am proposing a system that will involve participation by parents, educators, students and administrators,” said Dorman. “Together, we will develop rigorous, but developmentally appropriate and workable standards that reflect Oklahoma values.”

Dorman said he will create a Blue Ribbon Commission to craft these new standards. The Commission will consist of teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, school board members and Oklahoma college education professors. These Oklahomans will represent the different schools, communities and regions throughout the state. This includes urban, suburban and rural educators, elementary through high school teachers, and both gifted and special needs educators.

“These people are involved directly in education and have an in depth understanding of the needs, abilities and challenges facing our students today,” said Dorman. “No one else — certainly those outside of Oklahoma who have been used by Fallin and Barresi — will better craft quality standards for our children.”

Dorman added that the standards developed by the Commission will ensure a challenging curriculum necessary for gifted students and provide accommodations and modifications for special needs students. The Commission will fund, develop and provide remediation programs for those who struggle to meet the standards and who cannot perform at grade level.

“To ensure accountability, once the Commission writes the standards, town halls and public forums will be held around the state, allowing Oklahomans to voice their opinions and concerns,” said Dorman. “The Commission will then refine the standards based on this feedback.”

Along with the Commission, Dorman said he will establish a Superintendents Advisory Board to develop the best ways to implement these policies in individual school districts while maintaining local control.

Sidebar: what exactly are Oklahoma values? Hard work? Faith? Community? Find me a state whose leaders don’t think those values describe them. I know mincing a politician’s words is futile and that buzzwords get the ballots punched. This phrase has no meaning to me, though. Both sides are going to use it, so I guess it balances out. The same is true for college and career ready. It’s always been our goal to prepare students for all things that come after high school. That’s just a reformer’s way of pretending differently.

What I read in the process Dorman describes is similar to what the SDE has proposed. It will include all kinds of people from all kinds of schools in all parts of the state. It will be similar to what we did for the Social Studies revisions in 2011 and Science revisions last year.

Take a moment and fast-forward to 2016. At a town hall somewhere in Oklahoma, a member of the community will take a microphone and make a comment about the newly-written standards. At least once, the person speaking will do so without having read the standards. For the most part, the people of Oklahoma will listen to those around them who are well-informed. Whether the new standards written by Oklahomans and demonstrating our values gain broad acceptance depends mainly on the leadership presenting them. Few members of the public will ever actually read the content.

If we are to have new standards, we can wait a few months to start writing them. We can’t afford to have any part of the process tainted by the current occupants of the SDE. Start in January with a new state superintendent and possibly a new governor. That still leaves enough time to meet the requirements of HB 3399.

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