IT'S a sign of the political times — and not a good one — that an idea so simple and worthy as improving academic standards for students has become so twisted.
Gov. Mary Fallin went so far as to issue an executive order last week to ensure that the federal government isn't dipping its hands too far into state education affairs, particularly as it relates to Oklahoma's adoption of Common Core State Standards. The order covered everything from banning federal input on the Oklahoma version of the standards to making sure the standards and data collection don't violate student privacy.
In 2010, lawmakers adopted the standards in English and math, to take effect next school year. At the time, Oklahoma was a partner in a multi-state consortium developing standardized tests aligned with the new standards. The state has since designed its own tests.
The executive order counters overblown concerns in Oklahoma and elsewhere that Common Core standards are evidence of a “big brother” federal government overreach. It seems doubtful an executive order will quell the chorus of division among even Republicans, but perhaps we'll be pleasantly surprised.
The split among Republicans on the issue was on display last week. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said Common Core “sets standards at a higher level” without reducing local control. “We're not telling them what to teach or how to teach. School boards and administrators are still in control. My teachers, the ones that I have talked to, have been very supportive of the Common Core.”
House Speaker T.W. Shannon sees it differently. “At the end of the day, if you believe for one minute that if we nationalize our standards in Oklahoma that we are not going to become somewhat open to a takeover of our educational system by the federal government, you are fooling yourself,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “It's going to happen. We should get out now.”
The speaker said he disagreed with the idea that Common Core raised standards in Oklahoma, and said it would de-emphasize classic literature in favor of “experimental” systems.
The only school ingredient that matters is “highly motivated, highly trained teachers” who need a merit pay system to “break the union mold,” Shannon said. We agree: Good teachers and a wage commensurate with their value are a paramount part of the equation. So is training for them as the standards roll out. These are issues worth fighting for come February.
Many school districts in Oklahoma have implemented the standards ahead of the coming state mandate, even as students are taking standardized tests based on the old standards. Teachers and administrators know a higher academic bar for Oklahoma's children is a good thing. The concern they've been most vocal about isn't the content of the standards but uncertainty surrounding the testing piece. That's been particularly true since Oklahoma announced it would develop its own test aligned with Common Core.
Oklahoma lawmakers must resist the urge to pull back on the new academic standards. Their energy would be better spent — and students would be better served — on efforts to make sure every classroom is staffed with a good teacher who has the training and support needed to successfully implement the standards.