Leading academic says Oklahoma Department of Education’s Academic standards ‘are not worth following’

OKLAHOMA CITY – Coming in the wake of a years-long statewide debate about state vs. national control of educational curricula, House Bill 3399, enacted two years ago, laid out several policy objectives.

The measure included explicit rejection of the controversial “Common Core” curriculum, and stressed a goal for the state Department of Education to develop Oklahoma Standards – top-drawer and achievable benchmarks reflecting in-state objectives, tied to the best non-Common-Core ideals for the Math and Language Arts areas.

A growing number of Oklahomans and other analysts do not think the academic standards awaiting legislative action (or inaction) this year have met the goals established in H.B. 3399.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a standards specialist from Arkansas — in a memorandum dated March 9 and provided to this reporter – said the standards for English/Language Arts standards that she reviewed cannot lead to strong academic outcomes for the state’s K-12 students, no matter what other educational goals Oklahoma is seeking. They are not worth following.”

She elaborated, “While there are some aspects of the standards framework that are useful it is important to note that the kind of strands that serve to help teachers to shape a coherent and rigorous curriculum through the grades are not there (e.g., strands for the major genres of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Drama, and Traditional Literature).”

As Stotsky, an “emerita” professor at the University of Arkansas, stresses, the purpose of the standards, as defined in state law, is to enable parents to understand what is expected of children at each grade level. However, Strotsky said that in what she reviewed — pointing to just one example – Progressions of proposed standards in the Vocabulary strand leave both parents and teachers in the dark.”

While occasionally offering understated praise for the intentions embedded in the standards she reviewed, Dr. Stotsky’s final sentence was damning, “This document is completely empty. An empty document does not develop young minds, or help teachers to develop a sound and rigorous curriculum.”

Stotsky’s broad critique came to the attention of the editorial page writers at The Oklahoman early in the legislative session. As the opinion writers for the state’s largest newspapers pointd out, Stotsky has largely avoided the old “Common Core” fight and focused meticulously on the actual standards submitted beneath the Capitol dome.

They did quote the academic analyst, however, as concluding, the standards she reviewed “are for the most part empty skills and processes (not academic standards) and show few if any developmental progressions from grade to grade, the same failing in Common Core’s original standards.”

Stotsky, well-regarded in education circles, played a leading role in development of English standards in Massachusetts.

As for the math standards, Dr. Lawrence Gray of the University of Minnesota described his work with two colleagues in scrutinizing the documents he received. Early in his summary, a copy of which was provided to this reporter, he reflected:

Our overall impression is that extensive rewriting is required for these standards to effectively guide classroom instruction, provide a suitable foundation for assessment, and to adequately support students’ preparation for post-secondary work (“college readiness”). We feel that they are inferior in several ways to the standards of the best states. On the positive side, I found that this draft is a significant improvement over the PASS standards, and that all of the usual college readiness in math topics are covered. But coverage isn’t the same as effective delivery, and that is why we feel many improvements are needed.”

The majority of Dr. Gray’s critical analysis consists of explicit challenges to every portion of the math standards he reviewed.

After the state Board of Education approved the new standards, shortly before they were submitted to the Legislature at the start of this session, Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said, in a press release, These new standards are rigorous, user-friendly and most importantly created by Oklahomans to address the particular needs of our state.

They strengthen expectations of what our students can achieve and set a high bar that ensures all Oklahoma schoolchildren will be well prepared to enter higher education and demanding careers. I am thankful to every Oklahoman who participated in this process — from writing the standards to providing essential feedback. Oklahoma can truly be proud of these standards.”

Two years ago, H.B. 3399 provided for development and adoption of new English and math standards and assessments while prohibiting the Oklahoma State Board of Education from entering into any contract or agreement with any federal agency or private entity that would cede or limit state control.

Some reviewers have lauded the standards as submitted, but Stotsky and Gray are not alone in their concerns, at least for the standards they reviewed.

Prof. Andrew Spiropoulos detailed his initial worries a year ago this month.

Then, in a February essay for The Journal Record newspaper, he blasted the new standards as actually submitted: “So it turns out, despite the hullabaloo, that the task force charged with writing superior English and math academic standards has submitted a proposal that, poking below the surface, isn’t that different than the Common Core version the legislators ordered it to reject.”

When the reform measure was signed into law two years ago, sponsors, including state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said it was intended to yield meaningful and substantive state education standards for Math and English, while protecting state prerogatives and local control at the school district level and assuring no repeat of the Common Core meltdown.

Superintendent Hofmeister, who replaced Barresi at the helm of the education agency in January 2015, scrapped the work her predecessor had begun for H.B. 3399 implementation, and created her own process.

The agency’s final standards were submitted to the Legislature on February 1. They will go into effect 30 legislative days after submission, on March 23 (a Wednesday), if the House and Senate do not act to require more work on the strictures.

Jenni White, education director for Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment (ROPE) recently told CapitolBeatOK, “We believe the only way the public can truly be certain that these standards satisfied the full measure of H.B. 3399, passed by the legislature at the overwhelming request of the public, is to have the standards reviewed by the Legislature via a public forum where comments from the standards writing experts and others can be heard.”

Some sources at the state Capitol wonder if the final standards were, in fact, fully reviewed by all the academics and others who were supposed to analyze the final version.

White was a leading critic of Common Core (CC) throughout its contentious history in Oklahoma. Her efforts ultimately drew bipartisan critical scrutiny of the CC standards, established as Oklahoma’s lodestar in 2010.

Controversy eventually eroded public and educational support for the common core, leading both Gov. Mary Fallin and then-Superintendent Barresi to shift away, in 2013-14, from their original support for the controversial curriculum standards.

Fallin’s 2014 Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, was a leading critic of the “CC” strictures.

He opposed Common Core from the git-go, and in his last year at the Capitol supported the efforts of Republican legislators who pressed H.B. 3399 into law as a direct replacement for Common Core.

Concern about the efficacy of the standards submitted six weeks ago, and their adherence to the strictures of H.B. 3399, has mounted steadily during the 2016 session, and intensified in the past week. On Tuesday (March 15), the Heartland Institute of Chicago, working with Oklahoma allies, has scheduled a special “Education Standards Forum for Legislators” in Room 535 at the state Capitol. It will run, organizers say, from 2 – 4 p.m.

Organizers say the event is intended “to review the English Language Arts and Math Standards” with educational experts. Professors Stotsky and Gray will be featured speakers for the forum at the state

Capitol in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.