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Common controversy


Can Common Core improve public education? It depends on who you ask.

Peter Wright August 28th, 2013

It takes something big to get people excited about parsing a nuanced education policy, and that’s what the implementation of Common Core state standards has done.

If things go as planned, Common Core could reorganize curriculum, change old-school teaching styles, add more weight to literacy and redefine standardized testing. In one year, it’s supposed to be fully implemented in all Oklahoma schools, and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (SDE) just started looking for new tests.

It has been a loaded political buzzword in the halls of the state Capitol. Toward the end of this past legislative session, House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, floated a bill to repeal Common Core in Oklahoma, calling it a “vehicle for federal control of our public education system.” Two weeks later, conservative pundit and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote an open letter to state lawmakers, saying criticism of the standards from other conservatives was “disturbing.”

Common Core has found a home where politics intersects with academic research. It has parts in motion on every level of government, but where it will be felt most is in the classroom.

Creating Common Core
Although the standards themselves — Socratic questioning, a focus on literacy, timed essay tests and the like — have long been around in classrooms in one form or another, the movement to implement them in as many schools as possible took off only recently. The guidelines were formalized and published by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two Washington, D.C.-based nonprofits supported by state membership fees and foundation money.

States wanted a level playing field for comparing academic results. Common Core was seen as a way to keep expectations the same for students who move to different states.

In 2010, Oklahoma lawmakers passed legislation that committed the state to adopting Common Core.

Under the national push for the program, the responsibility of creating new standardized tests, which apply only to math and language arts, was left to states. Day-to-day curriculum remains the purview of local districts and teachers.

Tossing tests
Until recently, Oklahoma was slated to get its new standardized tests from the agonizingly named Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 21 states that were going in together on a single set of assessments with a hefty federal grant.

Then state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi announced July 1 that Oklahoma instead would develop its own exams. Three weeks later, Georgia followed suit, and other states expressed concerns.

Barresi said her change in direction resulted from a combination of misgivings about cost, the amount of time required for the PARCC exams and worries about the state’s technical readiness. She said it was a collective decision by her office, Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders.

The Oklahoma-bred tests will require only half the time needed by PARCC, and as a result, the tests will have fewer questions, Barresi said.

Financially, however, the benefit of opting out of the PARCC exams wasn’t as clear-cut. By switching to a locally produced test, the base price of the contract could actually be higher.

It’s the extra fees in PARCC that made it too expensive, according to Barresi. “A rough estimate is that we’re going to be saving $2 million a year,” she said.

Oklahoma offers “formative exams,” voluntary tests that teachers can use to mark progress. The state also allows retakes of its end-of-instruction exams to students who fail the first round as part of its testing contract. Neither of those are part of the basic PARCC package.

Barresi’s concerns about technology are linked with finances. PARCC’s tests are being developed for the Internet. Any districts that chose to continue using paper exams would have had that option for a year before incurring extra fees.

And Oklahoma needs those paper tests. In February, Barresi’s office found that only 28 percent of school districts statewide were technologically prepared for PARCC.

There are two main logistical problems with online testing on the state level, she said. Connectivity is spotty, especially for rural districts that lack the fiber-optic connections with enough bandwidth. And many schools don’t have enough computers. The ratio required by PARCC is one device to every two students.

New stakes
Contract shuffling aside, Barresi said field tests will still take place next year, and the new assessments will still be given in the 2014-15 school year. Oklahoma is still a member of PARCC, and educators from the state will remain involved, as they have the past couple of years.

The new tests will use the same cut levels, proficiency guidelines and accommodations for special circumstances such as PARCC, and they will still be written using Common Core as a guide.

“All of the work they (Oklahoma educators) did on PARCC, all of the technical work is going to be carried over,” Barresi said.

The new tests will differ greatly from the current fill-in-the-bubble exams. Questions will have more parts, and many will require written answers, according to Sara Snodgrass, director of elementary math standards for SDE.

Instead of asking test-takers to find the average of a random set of numbers, for example, the new test might ask them to find the most fuelefficient car in a group and show their work.

“It’s more, ‘Here’s the data,’ or, ‘Here’s a task and a problem. Now let’s think critically and solve this,’” Snodgrass said.

On the language arts tests, students will be asked to grasp main ideas and synthesize information into essays, said Josh Flores, SDE director of language arts.

The focus will shift to include more nonfiction articles, instruction manuals and real-world writing.

“Students are taking in multiple forms of information. They’re not just text-based,” he said.

Teaching teachers
The real crux of Common Core is in the classroom.

Districts across the state are in the middle of a massive push to examine curriculum and retrain teachers.

The state Education Department held a conference for curriculum development earlier this year, and representatives have visited schools across the state.

But ultimately, it’s on the districts to put the new policy into action.

Oklahoma City Public Schools developed its implementation plan about two years ago, said Wilbur House, the district’s executive director of curriculum development.

In June, 60 OKCPS teachers from different subjects met to create guides on what to teach and when to teach it. There are ongoing training sessions, and the district is providing teachers with examples of Common Core student work.

“We feel that the Common Core state standards movement is a very positive movement because it focuses on literacy,” House said.

Teaching literacy is also one of the focal points of training in Norman Public Schools.

Shirley Simmons, assistant superintendent of educational services, said district teachers and curriculum directors have been providing input to PARCC for a while, but now they have to reach every teacher.

“We’re really trying to focus on what best practices need to be in place in every classroom,” Simmons said.

There’s a standard procedure for introducing new standards, Norman Superintendent Joe Siano said. It starts with district leadership setting goals. Then principals have to engage in what those standards are about. Finally, teacher leaders must get trained before forming advisory groups that reach out to the staff.

“You can have a good implementation or a fast implementation — but you don’t get both,” Siano said.

Either way, it takes time and money. Siano said he feels underresourced when it comes to technology and professional development. Extra dollars spent on any new reform diverts money from other needs when the state doesn’t provide it.

“For any major reform to be successful, you have to give the resources to make it successful,” he said.

Still, training is pushing ahead in Norman, and so far, the teachers who have been engaged with the new materials seem to like it.

Core critics
Change is also controversial.

State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, has introduced several anti- Common Core bills, including one in this year’s legislative session.

He voted for the measure approving Common Core in 2010, but since then, he has become a vocal legislative opponent.

Blackwell said the bill won passage in the House because Republican leaders urged their representatives to vote for it as a way to win a federal education grant.

Now, Blackwell views the standards as threatening to place Oklahoma education in the hands of a federal bureaucracy, and he’s worried about how much it could cost the state.

“People are realizing what this nationwide socialization of education entails, and states are rebelling against it,” he said.

Jenni White has advocated against the standards for about three years through her grassroots group, Restore Oklahoma Public Education. She opposes the standards in part because they were written and published by national, private groups.

A former middle school science teacher, White said Common Core guidelines are too narrow.

When she was a teacher, she liked being able to teach a little about a lot of subjects. Now she fears educators won’t introduce as many concepts in the classroom.

“This will lobotomize education in America. You cannot build a life for yourself on two subjects,” she said.

Teachers are being threatened by an undeveloped testing system, White said. With the additional weight of performance assessments partly based on test scores, some might be afraid to even try teaching anything aside from the framework outlined by Common Core.

With so much in play and the final countdown underway, for many, it seems as if the Common Core discussion has just started.

 
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