‘A mile wide and an inch deep’ – The Hofmeister Academic Standards under critical scrutiny

OKLAHOMA CITY – At the end of a contentious week that saw her agency’s Oklahoma Academic Standards come under sustained criticism, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister reached out to journalists in recent days, seeking to defend standards that a leading authority on standards-based instruction deemed “not worth following.”

In a statement to The Tulsa World, Hofmeister said, “[P]eople from outside our state are swooping in at the eleventh hour to try politicizing Oklahoma’s standards.”

The first-term Republican –whose close alliance with Tulsa-area educators opposed to changing governance structures in public education helped her unseat former Superintendent Janet Barresi in the 2014 election – was responding to a report from the “Achieve” organization characterizing Hofmeister’s proposed standards as lacking depth and quality.”

Achieve, decribed in Andrea Eger’s Tulsa World story (March 18) as “one of the nation’s pre-eminent authorities on education standards,” blasted the state Education Department’s Academic standards for Math and English/Language Arts.

Sandy Boyd, chief operating officer at Achieve, commented to Eger, “In both content areas Oklahoma’s new standards fail to serve students, teachers, or parents well. The standards cover a lot of content, but with very little depth; a phenomena sometimes referred to as ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ in standards language.”

Despite efforts to frame the critiques of Hofmeister’s Standards as politically driven and sustained by non-Oklahoma analysts, diverse critics inside and outside the state have faulted the work of the superintendent and her staff.

In a Sunday, March 20 editorial, The Oklahoman Editorial Board commented:

If lawmakers don’t reject the proposed standards by Wednesday (March 23), they automatically take effect for the next six years. While lawmakers might revisit standards again before that six-year limit, subsequent changes would lead to ongoing disruption for teachers, mandating constant revision of curriculum, testing, and even textbooks. That’s hardly ideal. It’s far better to revise the standards upfront than midstream.

Educational quality starts with solid standards. It’s more important to do this job right than to do it quickly.”

At a March 15 hearing at the state Capitol, Oklahoma educator Tara Huddleston dissected the Hofmeister Standards, telling a panel of legislators that teachers she works with have “stated to me that the new standards’ vagueness and lack of exemplars will make it difficult for them to teach – and these are veteran teachers. … We must give teachers a fighting chance and that is only possible with specific, content-rich standards. … I can tell you that another consequence of adopting these standards as they are now, is that Oklahoma will have more schools on the school improvement list.”

State Sens. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, and Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, co-chaired the capitol hearing.

Another Oklahoman, Jenni White, reviewed the process Hofmeister created for the standards in an essay published in the state’s largest newspaper on March 16.

White wrote, “[S]everal issues causing the OAS writing teams trouble from the beginning had not been resolved prior to the release of the final draft. These are as follows.

For English/Language Arts:

• Vague; uses imprecise terminology.

• Not measurable or precise; not easily testable.

• Needs more work on glossary of terms.

• Needs examples of literary texts at each grade level.

• Needs reading/writing lists of Oklahoma authors.

• Needs reading material from the founding documents.

• Needs student exemplar writing samples.

For math:

• Too much overlap of standards across grades; lack of focus on alignment.

• Needs specific examples of problems.

• Need much more work on glossary of terms.

• Needs resources for teachers to utilize.”

After a news report on the standards controversy first appeared at The City Sentinel newspaper website — headlined “Leading academic says Oklahoma Department of Education’s Academic Standards are ‘not worth following’” – state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, echoed the criticisms in a succinct post: “This is what I’m hearing from constituents.”

The Hofmeister Standards have some support, as Eger reported, including from Frank Wang, president at Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics; Oklahoma State University; Oklahoma Writing Project at the University of Oklahoma; Oklahoma Council of Teachers of Math; Oklahoma Department of Commerce, and the Southern Regional Education Board.”

State Education Board Member Lee Baxter jabbed at the Achieve organization, according to the World.

In repealing Common Core, we said we don’t want California standards, we don’t want Massachusetts standards, we don’t want Minnesota standards. We want Oklahoma standards with Oklahoma expertise. …

And two days before, we get this report from a very suspect organization — the architect of Common Core, and we rejected Common Core.

The Legislature needs to approve the standards. Sometimes perfect can be the complete enemy of good enough or good enough for right now.”

Notably sent from lists of supporters for the Hofmeister Standards, however, is the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition (OBEC), which has remained neutral. In Ager’s story, former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Phyllis Hudecki, now OBEC executive director, was complimentary of the Achieve organization.

Ager quoted Hudecki as saying, “We know and appreciate the state put tremendous effort into the work, but from the beginning of the process they were working with few resources and a compressed timeline.

Make no mistake about it, our state education professionals can create excellent standards. Our students can achieve at high levels and compete with anybody anywhere if they are given the opportunity and resources.

Our focus and concern about the new standards was the education of our students and if the new standards would enable them to be competitive with students from other states and nations.”