Why Oklahoma Should Stay the Course with the Common Core

By 05/05/2014

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As legislatures wind down their spring sessions nationwide, Oklahoma is one of the few remaining states with an ongoing, unresolved debate over the Common Core State Standards. Unfortunately, it appears that the Sooner State may follow Indiana’s route and repeal the standards. As the Oklahoman points out in a powerful editorial today, that won’t solve any political problems for Oklahoma Republicans; the Tea Party opponents of the Common Core in Indiana are madder than ever.

But those political considerations are far from the best reasons for Oklahoma to stand strong and not revert back to its old standards (which is what local Common Core opponents are suggesting). The most important factor is that those old standards, while relatively solid, had significant shortcomings—shortcomings that make them incompatible with college and career readiness:

1. Few objectives were devoted to informational texts. This is a problem for two reasons. First, informational texts—otherwise known as nonfiction—allow students to gain important content knowledge that will allow them to become proficient readers. It’s this focus on content knowledge that is one reason we at the Fordham Institute (and Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) are such strong supporters of the Common Core. Second, research demonstrates that many students struggle in college because they have not had enough exposure to informational texts in the K–12 system; addressing that preparation gap is a major goal (and positive feature) of the Common Core. What’s more, Oklahoma’s old standards were neither detailed enough about the literary genres students should read nor demanding enough in terms of studying America’s foundational documents.
2. There was no guidance about assigning students challenging, complex texts. Another strong point of the Common Core is that it expects students to read intellectually demanding fiction and nonfiction texts as they make their way through the K–12 system. This has paved the way for higher expectations at every grade level, as teachers push students to tackle tough reading assignments rather than stay within their comfort zone.
3. Oklahoma’s old math standards did not require the mastery of standard algorithms. The cornerstone of the “fuzzy math” that so many conservatives rightly abhor is the notion that students should be able to use “multiple strategies” to solve problems rather than learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and so on. Yet that’s precisely the approach that Oklahoma’s old standards took.
4. Perhaps most egregiously, Oklahoma’s old standards suggested the use of calculators as early as first grade. We now know from solid research that young students must develop fluency with arithmetic; the use of calculators is a major impediment. That’s why the Common Core saves the use of calculators until the late elementary grades—after students have mastered and memorized their math facts.

These significant problems with Oklahoma’s old standards aren’t the only reason that we are dismayed that some lawmakers want to arrest the momentum of four years of Common Core implementation. Here are additional concerns with that approach:

1. It breeds cynicism and distrust among educators and interrupts real progress on the ground. Our schools are all too familiar with the “flavor-of-the-month” reforms that come and go seemingly on a whim. State leaders promised local school boards, administrators, and teachers that the Common Core standards would be different and that they were here to stay. Educators responded in good faith by investing millions of dollars into professional development and new curricular materials, plus untold man-hours in preparing for these new, more challenging standards. Who wants to tell them that Oklahoma is scrapping all of that because of politics?
2. It wastes money. Reports out of Indiana illustrate that repealing the Common Core is costly. Some estimates put the price tag of the do-over at over $100 million. And in Indiana, the new standards are quite similar to the Common Core; that would not be the case if Oklahoma returned to its old English and math standards. It would be an even greater disruption.
3. It locks Oklahoma educators out of a wave of innovation. As many of us had hoped, the adoption of common standards has led to the development of a variety of new curricular materials and other tools for teachers and students. State governments, nonprofits, and for-profit companies are releasing materials that are dramatically better than the textbooks of old—many of them built for tablets and other new technologies—but that are all aligned with the Common Core. Oklahoma educators will be stuck with a rotary while everyone else speeds ahead with smart phones.

Here’s hoping that in Oklahoma, and elsewhere, reason will prevail.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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