What Oklahoma Can Teach America About Politicizing Education

Karen Nussle Executive Director, Conservative Leaders for Education
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For several years, activists have been lobbying state legislatures to repeal Common Core State Standards and replace them with what they claim are better benchmarks. They’ve had only limited success: since 2010, only three states have repealed them. One of those states is Oklahoma, where replacement standards were adopted this month that are, by most objective measures, weaker than Common Core. And that, in turn, will almost certainly – and sadly — produce a generation of Oklahoma children who are not equipped for success after high school.

The lesson from Oklahoma, as well as from elsewhere in the country, is that it is impossible to produce high-quality standards – the expectations for what students should know at the end of each grade and upon graduating — that bear no resemblance to Common Core.

Indeed, Oklahoma is a case study on the perils of politicizing education standards at the expense of kids. To any state that may be contemplating a Common Core repeal-and-replace, it provides an instructive example of the dangers inherent in dumping proven high-quality standards.

Among the three states that repealed Common Core, Oklahoma is unique in that it was a true repeal; whereas, in both Indiana and South Carolina, the “repeal” laws that were passed were, for all intents and purposes, elaborate rebranding exercises in which the actual content deviates very little from the Common Core State Standards they replaced.

That was not the case in Oklahoma. In 2014, lawmakers there approved legislation that not only mandated repeal of Common Core State Standards, but also required the state to produce a new set of homegrown benchmarks that broke completely from the Common Core. The legislation expressly prohibited any resemblance, correlation or harmony with the standards. The fringe groups pressuring lawmakers insisted on it; they would accept nothing less.

“We are capable of developing our own Oklahoma academic standards that will be better than Common Core,” insisted Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin upon signing the bill. “They must raise the bar – beyond what Common Core offers – on what we expect of our students.”

Fast forward two years. The Oklahoma legislature voted this past week to adopt the state’s newly produced standards. And before the vote had even taken place, critics were already assailing the new benchmarks for their lack of rigor and clarity, especially when compared to the Common Core standards state leaders had tossed out.

In both English language arts and math, “the standards fail to serve students, teachers or parents well,” wrote Achieve, one of the nation’s most respected authorities on academic benchmarks and content, in its analysis of the new Oklahoma Academic Standards.

“It is discouraging to see Oklahoma moving backwards instead of forward. The standards fall short on nearly all of Achieve’s criteria for quality standards… Worst of all, these standards will disadvantage Oklahoma students compared to their peers in other states; students in Oklahoma will be less prepared to successfully enter college and careers.”

Achieve’s analysis mirrors earlier analyses from other respected experts.

“You’re close to the bottom of the basement, I’m sorry to say, because there is no content in them,” said Sandra Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor and vocal Common Core opponent who is credited with developing Massachusetts’ K-12 standards. It is widely acknowledged that the Massachusetts standards significantly contributed to the development of the Common Core State Standards.

One Oklahoma teacher who reviewed the standards, Tara Huddleston, said she was “surprised” by the lack of substance in the new standards. “The current standards reveal a product done in a time crunch,” she said.

The Common Core State Standards are rigorous and clear and measurable because they were produced through a collaborative process by education experts from virtually every state. There is near universal agreement that the skills and knowledge identified in the standards reflect what students need to master in order to achieve success after high school.

Because of that, high-quality standards – regardless of who they’re written by – tend to look a lot like Common Core.

Oklahoma’s experiment failed miserably, at the expense of tens of thousands of school children who will graduate from high school unable to gain admission to the college of their choice, and otherwise unprepared to succeed in a 21st Century career.

If there’s a silver lining to the Oklahoma debacle, it’s that other states are learning from its mistakes. Just days after Oklahoma’s ill-advised decision to adopt inferior standards, lawmakers in Kansas scuttled a proposal to abolish Common Core. Kansas parents should breathe a sigh of relief. More politicians should put the interests of kids above a cheap applause line delivered for political gain.

Karen Nussle is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success.