During summer 2010, while researching an article to address yet another tax-and-spend initiative to fund public schools, I stumbled upon a 33-page state law passed that spring titled “Schools; relating to teacher incentive pay plans; modifying requirements.”
Although a portion of the legislation did address teacher incentive pay, the bulk was used to establish a state longitudinal database, a “Teacher/Leader Effectiveness Evaluation” (TLE) system, a way to “turn around” low-performing schools, and institute something called the “Common Core State Standards” into Oklahoma policy with a single sentence.
A Google search led me to discover that cementing these four programs into state law increased the likelihood of our state receiving Race to the Top grants from the Obama administration. As a former public school teacher, the change in educational landscape represented by even one, let alone four, of these programs concerned me. As a small government gal and a parent with kids in public school, I wanted to know why our state would institute a whole raft of new, untested, educational programs just to get federal funds.
In June 2011, after months of investigation aimed at answering these questions, I published a paper with 179 references entitled “Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top; An Introduction to Marxism 101.”
Oklahoma’s Common Core Repeal
From 2011 to 2014, the Common Core Four, as National Review dubbed us, fought Common Core and student data collection in the Oklahoma legislature. We logged hours and hours of travel across the state and country, showing up anywhere we were invited—mostly Republican women’s clubs—where I talked about Common Core. Eventually I found myself on radio and news shows from Utah to Florida, including national media programs like Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and NPR, discussing my research.
Finally, and many thanks to the Herculean efforts of state Sen. Josh Brecheen and state Rep. Jason Nelson, a law repealing Common Core and requiring the state to develop new “Oklahoma standards” was passed the last day of the 2014 legislative session. Following a state Supreme Court ruling denying a lawsuit to scuttle the bill, from Common Core supporters including four State Board of Education appointees, Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill June 5.
By the time school started in the fall, we were fielding question after question through our Facebook page akin to, “They’re still teaching Common Core at our school! What do I do?”
I was not surprised that schools would continue to use Common Core curricula, but was surprised it was so blatantly done and with so little regard for the law. This turned out to be the least of my surprises. After an exhaustive search for an answer, the biggest shock we got was that we’d overlooked the most important part of House Bill 3399—an enforcement mechanism.
Unfortunately, our hard-fought, hard-won Common Core repeal bill was little more than a suggestion at best. Nowhere in its endless legalese did it address punitive action for continued use of Common Core. Other than contacting their local district attorneys (which several parents did and were ignored, with replies of “Why would we spend money going after Common Core ‘law breakers’ when we’ve got meth labs on every corner?”) we were told parents should run for local school boards to keep it out of their schools.
After licking our wounds from this setback, we pulled up our big girl panties and prepared to watchdog the curriculum mandates re-write process, thinking we’d see Common Core end there.
Oklahoma’s Common Core Standards Re-Write Saga
The standards re-write process began in earnest in January 2015 under direction of a new state superintendent. In February, Dr. Sandra Stotsky—an education policy powerhouse and member of the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee who refused to sign off—and Dr. Larry Gray, a math professor at the University of Minnesota, were among four experts asked to testify before the Standards Process Steering Committee about how Oklahoma’s new academic standards (OAS) could advance beyond Common Core.
Very long story short, after producing critiques of all four subsequently released standards drafts, Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment, the grassroots organization I help lead, asked the legislature to grant more time to the re-write process before officially making OAS the state’s new curriculum and testing mandates. From that moment on, the Oklahoma education establishment (#oklaed) engaged in a series of social media attacks against ROPE, and me personally, to marginalize us as “tinfoil hats” for suggesting any overlap between OAS and Common Core, and me as a hater of public education.
Leo Baxter, a state school board member who sued to stop the Common Core repeal, was especially vocal, taking to social media every moment he could, at one point calling Stotsky an “arrogant miscreant” (while misspelling Massachusetts).
Rather than stand their ground against a vocal, largely uncivil, minority of Oklahoma teachers, the Oklahoma senate gaveled out of session rather than vote on Oklahoma’s new “Oklahoma Academic Standards” (OAS). On March 28, 2016, OAS became law through administrative processes written in the bill, leaving Oklahomans who fought desperately for better education standards with nothing for all our years of citizen advocacy.
Oklahoma and Common Core Today: One Teacher’s View
Emotionally spent after years of fighting government for better education opportunities only to end up very publicly attacked, I wrote a blog post detailing all the ways I’d come to believe Common Core had beaten us despite Oklahoma’s repeal. I stand behind every observation today, but I wanted to know if others had the same pessimistic conclusions, so I interviewed several.
Sandy Harrell, an Oklahoma math teacher who participated in the “Common Core Is Not OK” pushback, at first assured me, “Common Core is not gone from Oklahoma classrooms,” before telling me how unclear the new mandates are, echoing a common complaint about OAS. The thing that frustrates her most however, is the fact that, “Some teachers and administrators thought adopting CC was a step in the right direction. There are teachers who still use CC in their classrooms because they think it superior to OAS.”
An April 2015 article in the Hechinger Report called “Gone but not forgotten? Common Core lingers after Oklahoma’s repeal” reinforces Sandy’s point. Here, the author interviews several Oklahoma teachers including Oklahoma teacher of the year (2009) Heather Sparks, who admits that not only does she use Common Core-aligned teaching materials, she also writes Common Core-aligned lesson plans for a teaching website.
Harrell told me many of her fellow teachers are “grasping at straws” to satisfy OAS with limited budgets and outdated resources. This often leads them to reach for curricula from outside suppliers, which correlate OAS and CC math standards.
“I’m curious how Smith Curriculum and Consulting can equate each OAS and CC standard to provide teaching resources if the two sets of standards are not closely related, as some OSDE employees have claimed,” Harrell said. “As a teacher, I have to be able to justify every lesson and method I teach. I have yet to hear anyone justify why CC is superior to PASS [Oklahoma’s previous academic standards].”
Oklahoma and Common Core Today: A Legislator Responds
Josh Brecheen, the Oklahoma state senator responsible in great part for HB3399, told me, “It’s a teacher by teacher decision as to whether they are bringing Common Core aligned curriculum into the classroom. It’s my hope teachers continue to honor the wish of Oklahomans who voiced their opposition to the Common Core State Standards through their elected officials.”
For Brecheen, the biggest threat to Common Core independence in Oklahoma has to do with the new state superintendent’s desire to have taxpayers pay for every high school junior to take the ACT, a college entrance exam controlled by a private company.
“ACT is known to be aligned to the Common Core and if a teacher uses Common Core curriculum, rationalizing it will prepare students for the ACT exam, this undermines HB3399 and ultimately, the voice of parents in our state,” Brecheen said.
Interestingly, the information regarding ACT’s alignment with Common Core has since been scrubbed from its website. Thankfully, my experience with disappearing pages from the Common Core webpage taught me to take lots of screenshots.
The senator also believes using the ACT in such a way “puts private companies in charge of what is being taught in our state and not teachers and parents,” yet most Oklahoma lawmakers, as well as those in many other states, seemed largely content to mandate ACT for all juniors. “National curriculum uniformity driven by company profits and a national marketplace for their goods and service offerings will stagnate educational improvement long term as well as threaten each state’s traditional values,” Brecheen says.
Oklahoma and Common Core Today: A Parent’s Take
Like many Oklahoma parents, Melissa Wilkins watched her third grader, Ashlyn, turn into someone she didn’t know during the 2014 school year.
“We started every morning with a fight because she constantly complained of a stomach ache and cried because she didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “We would finally get her around and out the door to catch the bus, and then I would catch myself almost dreading her walking back in the door after school. It wasn’t uncommon for her to walk in the door, hit or kick her baby brother for no reason, and then run back to her bedroom where she would yell or cry, again for no reason I could understand.”
After talking to another parent, she found her daughter’s school was implementing Common Core math and English just in time to take the state’s new third-grade reading test, the results of which could keep her from moving to fourth grade. While taking part in Common Core repeal activities, she also met many times with Ashlyn’s teacher, wondering why her daughter had slipped from a fifth-grade reading level to barely above third grade.
When she saw her daughter’s practice tests, “I was appalled,” she said. “Not only was the content immoral, but the questions were so subjective that there simply could be no right or wrong answer.”
After fighting so hard for her kids’ education, Wilkens’ life changed once Common Core was repealed. Through her advocacy on Common Core, she became interested in “alternative means” of education, because her four children “all have very different approaches to learning.”
Wilkens homeschooled her other two children for a year, after which she enrolled them in an Oklahoma online charter school. Wilkens continues to be frustrated by numerous reading assignments given to her oldest son, who was required to read graphic, anti-Christian literature in his senior English class.
“Is Common Core dead in Oklahoma? I would say no,” Wilkens says. “Am I better prepared to lead my children through the challenges posed by this toxic set of standards? Yes! Being a political activist cannot be my primary role, but I will never again be scared to dig deeper when my gut tells me something isn’t right.”
Oklahoma and Common Core Today: A Teacher of Teachers
Barbara McClanahan is an associate professor of educational instruction at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Early in our fight, we were asked to give a presentation in the far southeast part of the state, where we met this diminutive powerhouse who had done all her own research on Common Core and come to the same conclusions. Until Common Core was repealed, she spent her time like we did: testifying before government committees, writing, and traipsing about talking to anyone who would listen.
Barbara says, “In the fall of 2011…I began to have my teacher candidates attempt to apply the new CC standards to the lesson plans they were required to write for 1st-3rd grade students. We began to discover that the standards components for these age groups and grade levels simply did not match the developmental concepts they were learning about in their textbooks. I became quite frustrated and began looking outside my institution, which seemed to have no answers, for an explanation.”
To her the Common Core victory was hollow, she says, in part because both Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools loudly proclaimed their continued use, but also because the standards don’t help children learn to read well. In the end, she says, her position on standards changed.
“Whereas I used to feel that standards were a useful tool, the fact that they have been co-opted in the service of high-stakes standardized tests makes their usefulness highly questionable. Standards, in the end, lead to standardization, which is fine for widgets, but not for children,” Barbara says.
And What About Me?
I learned through this process that education policy in this country simply can’t be shifted by citizens anymore because there are too many moving parts and entrenched policy makers tied to progressive education methods to have any real impact. So I quit fighting for public education.
Part of me hates that, but I was beginning to look a bit like the Elephant Man from banging my head into unmovable walls, and my husband and kids deserved more of my attention. Today, I help run our small farm, teach three classes at our homeschool co-op, and drive my kids’ studies like a good natured tyrant.
If I learned anything from Common Core, I learned that local is the answer to nearly every government problem, and I turned my attention to my tiny Oklahoma town of 2,700 where, in April, I became mayor. Now I fight battles largely winnable, in a picturesque little town on a plot of land where I can see both the sunrise and sunset, and pray that national public education will get better despite the near impossibility of parents and local voters to significantly affect it.