Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

What We Can Learn from Oklahoma’s Repeal of Common Core

Today as I enjoyed learning and teaching in day two of the first STEM Seeds PD Camp in Yukon, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill 3399 repealing Common Core State Standards in our public schools. Instead of continuing to implement Common Core Standards, as our schools have been doing (at varying rates) for the past THREE years, we revert back to PASS (Priority Academic Student Skills) which started in 2003. Oklahomans will now ostensibly work together to write new, original, and “more rigorous standards by August 2016.”

Several things are uncertain, but some things are clear. We don’t know if US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, will choose to rescind Oklahoma’s NCLB waiver. Jenks principal Rob Miller says he doesn’t have to. If Duncan does, he theoretically could close or force our State Department of Education to take over hundreds of Oklahoma public schools, firing hundreds of educators, and converting many schools to for-profit charters. (Those are provisions in NCLB for “failing schools.”) That seems unlikely given the current climate, but who knows?

It’s also uncertain how much it will cost Oklahoma taxpayers to create new academic standards which will replace Common Core. Rebecca Klein noted today estimates vary from $1.24 million (via the Oklahoma SDE) to over $100 million, like Indiana, the first U.S. state to repeal Common Core. Either way, it will be expensive. That’s sad, since our scarce education dollars can be better spent in MANY ways besides writing YET MORE academic standards. [LISTEN TO MY LOUD SIGH HERE]

One thing seems abundantly and unfortunately clear. Parent anger over “federal overreach” into public education has been misdirected toward academic standards instead of public education enemy number 1: high stakes testing. I recorded two videos in the past couple months explaining this: “Simply Opposing Common Core is a Strawman” (this morning, on June 5, 2014) and “Oklahoma Legislators: Don’t Repeal Common Core Standards, Instead Reject High Stakes Testing” (April 7, 2014). Even though Common Core was legally repealed in Oklahoma today, I don’t think my breath making these videos was wasted. We need to continue to share this message with our legislators and with other Oklahoma parents, teachers, and other voters: High Stakes Testing creates a toxic culture for learning in our state and needs to end ASAP.

A significant amount of funding for our public schools in Oklahoma comes from federal sources. Although Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Joe Dornan says he’ll ask our state legislators to repeal all high stakes tests immediately if elected, it’s not clear what effect that decision would have on federal education funding. I agree with Dornan that abolishing high stakes testing is needed in Oklahoma, but a lot is unknown about what following this path will (or would) entail. It may be that constitutional challenges in our courts will be necessary (as Rob Miller alludes to in his post today) to the overreach of the federal government in mandating requirements for our public schools. Even if we lose funding, perhaps Oklahoma parents could push for tax law exemption changes on horizontal drilling and other tax law reforms which could make up the difference? Again that seems unlikely in our state and nation where most laws are written by corporate lobbyists, but again, who knows?

Joe Dorman Wants to Abolish High Stakes by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Wesley Fryer 

Here’s a short list of things we DO know following today’s repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma.

1. Parental Voices, Even When They are Misinformed, Can Be Powerful

Parent voices WERE loud and more united than I’ve ever seen around state education policy in this hoopla over Common Core standards in our state. The Facebook private group, “Oklahomans for Great Public Schools,” which has 3721 members as of this writing, is a case in point. These dynamics of greater civic participation by Oklahoma parents are good in many respects. We NEED more participation and advocacy not only from parents in our state, but especially from classroom teachers who have the best perspective on the impact of many policy decisions which others can simply “armchair quarterback.’ I’m GLAD to see more civic participation by citizens in our state on educational policy issues.

We need MANY more current classroom Okla by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Wesley Fryer 

2. Many Parents Are Mis-informed about Educational Policies and Practices

While it’s encouraging and positive to see more parental advocacy for changes in education policy, it’s disturbing to see how many people are mis-informed. Here are some examples.

Oklahoma parent Melissa Wilkens gushed with enthusiasm in a tweet to our governor following her signing of HB3399:

My kids are so relieved. Math can be fun again!!

Twitter _ MelissaWilkens by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Wesley Fryer 

Oh if educational change were only so easy. With one stroke of her pen, it would be GREAT if our Governor had the power to “make math fun again” for thousands of students all over our state! Unfortunately that’s not reality.

Common Core standards didn’t “kill the fun” of math in any of the classrooms of our state: The ways teachers teach can do that. Teachers can also light a fire for a love of learning, as we saw repeatedly in our STEM workshop this week in Yukon. Good teachers teach well, irrespective of academic standards. Parents like Melissa, unfortunately, ascribe far too much importance and power to academic standards if they honestly believe passage of HB3399 will “make math fun again” for Oklahoma students. Instead of making math fun, it will (sadly) make math instruction far more confusing for most (if not all) Oklahoma math teachers in 2014-15. Math instruction in our Oklahoma schools was not some kind of utopian wonderland under “the good ‘ole PASS standards of 2003.” Like other NCLB-era standards around our nation, PASS is a set of minimum requirements which are focused on learning measurable with multiple-choice, high stakes, standardized assessments. Passage of HB3399 does nothing to reduce or eliminate high stakes testing in Oklahoma, in math or any other content area. It certainly doesn’t provide professional development or even encouragement to teachers to “make math fun again.”

This tweet of encouragement to our governor to sign HB3399 and “save [the] love of learning” in our schools is another example of mis-informed parental advocacy.

Misinformed Advocacy for HB 3399 by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Wesley Fryer 

3. Misconceptions Can Be Called Out Without “Attacking People”

The following screenshot is from a Twitter conversation this evening with several Oklahoma parents (and later, an educator who added observations) who were celebrating the repeal of Common Core and hailing it as a wonderful victory for our schools and our children. In the thread, after pointing out that HB3399 does nothing to change high stakes testing in Oklahoma for our children, I was accused of “attacking.” This was inaccurate.

Since the “campaign to kill Common Core in Oklahoma” has become so heated, many people have taken this fight very personally. It’s both possible and important for all of us in education (but especially current classroom teachers) to continue calling out misconceptions… and to do that without personally attacking individuals. “Celebrations” today over Common Core repeal further reinforce the “straw man argument” that I addressed in my 9 minute video this morning, linked previously in this post. It’s simultaneously silly and sad to celebrate the repeal of Common Core standards, when the standards themselves were not and are not the biggest problem and enemy we face. High stakes testing is the enemy. If you’re filled with joy today at the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma, you may be misdirecting your frustration and anger over educational policies in our state and nation. It’s not too late to open your mind to this reality: High stakes testing has and continues to create a toxic learning culture in our schools for students and teachers, and must end as soon as possible.

Celebration Discussion Over Common Core Repeal in Oklahoma

4. We Need More Great Teachers In Oklahoma, Not More Standards, And That Takes MONEY

My wife and I can tell you from personal experiences in schools in Edmond, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, and Lubbock, Texas: You can have your children in the “best ranked” and “best reputation” schools in an entire city, but the quality of the educational experience comes down to one thing: The teacher. There are great teachers and there are not-so-great teachers in every school. No matter how good a teacher is, we can always get better. We need schools where all our teachers are working to get better, and are SUPPORTED in a multitude of ways to help educate and inspire students.

Our conversations over educational policy in Oklahoma need to shift in several important directions, and one of them is this: Let’s focus on attracting, nurturing, retaining, and celebrating great teachers, instead of mis-placing our faith in “rigorous academic standards.” The standards movement in U.S. schools has been positive in some respects, but it has been used destructively to build a culture of high stakes accountability for students. Now, thanks to a variety of organizations and actors, that culture is becoming even more high stakes for teachers. Some of those advocating for high standards in schools are well intentioned, I really do believe that. Many of these same well-intentioned people (including some elected state and national representatives, unfortunately) are currently deluded in their belief that standards in some form “will save us” and help our schools. Yes, we need updated and relevant academic standards. But what we need even more, and we need to increasingly verbalize and discuss in educational policy conversations, are GREAT teachers in our classrooms.

You’ve probably heard that Oklahoma is 48th in educational funding. It shocks and disappoints me that our elected officials choose to fund public education in our state at such abysmally low rates. Here’s a point of personal disclosure, but it’s also an open record in the 2013-14 salary schedule of my Oklahoma school district. As an educator with a Ph.D. and 17 years of experience (but only 5 years of “recognized and transferred” classroom teaching experience by the Oklahoma State Department of Education) my monthly take-home salary is $2500. As the primary breadwinner for a family of five, this is extremely challenging.

We don’t need to fight over academic standards in Oklahoma. We need to fight for tax reforms so our wonderful Oklahoma companies (including and especially our oil and gas companies) will pay their fair share to make our state truly GREAT and not just “OK.” 48th in education funding is not acceptable. Classroom teachers are retiring and choosing to leave our profession in large numbers today, and it’s not just because of baby boomer demographics. (Although that certainly IS a big factor.) Teachers are leaving public schools because state and federal lawmakers have been complicit for YEARS in an open war on the education profession, demonizing teachers and championing high stakes testing as a means to improve school performance.

I encourage you to review the PowerPoint slides of the organization Voice OKC, which presented “High Stakes Testing: Is It Worth the Costs?” at this past Monday’s OKCPS board meeting. The costs of high stakes testing have been and continue to be high, and the only winners have been testing companies (who continue to make millions literally on the backs of our children forced to take high stakes tests in school climates often laden with fear) and politicians who hoodwink constituents into believing that by supporting high stakes testing and high standards, they’re acting in the best interests of our children and our communities.

They have not been, and these dynamics need to change.

If you live in or near Oklahoma City, please mark your calendar to attend Sunday’s debate from 3 – 4:30 pm at Oklahoma City University between our candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Free registration is available via EventBrite.

There’s a lot we can learn from Oklahoma’s repeal of Common Core today. One of the most important lessons is this: We need to remain involved, connected, and committed to both advocating but also listening to all parties involved in education in our state. It’s not time to celebrate. It’s time to continue these conversations, and seek ways to constructively TRANSFORM (not merely “reform”) our schools in the 21st century.

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