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July 13, 2014

Wrangle over state standards raises questions about qualifications

DUNCAN — With a simple flourish of Gov. Mary Fallin’s pen last month, Common Core was no more. Taking shape in the void has been a pitched battle over who will control the educational standards that replace it.

Oklahoma's repeal of the national education standards known as the Common Core, which the state had previously adopted, came in a bill in which the Legislature also gave itself authority to approve — or disapprove — new standards.

For that, four members of the state Board of Education are suing. They claim the Legislature is infringing upon their board's rights to supervise instruction in public schools. Their attorney, Robert McCampbell, says the Legislature also is giving itself too much power, in violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine.

Education officials say writing curriculum standards is more difficult than it may seem. The job is critical — and at times political — deciding things such as whether and how evolution is taught, what to teach children about reproduction and when calculators should be introduced.

It remains to be seen who is best qualified for the task.

A survey of legislators' online biographies shows that 19 list any classroom teaching experience. There are 149 members of the state House and Senate; nearly three-dozen do not post their biographies online.

Most lawmakers have college degrees — or at least attended college — and most chose careers other than education. That means the fate of the state’s new education standards will be in the hands of businessmen, a motivational speaker, a funeral director, attorneys, farmers, doctors and pastors.

Then again, the odds aren’t much better in finding an educator on the state Board of Education. Besides the state’s superintendent of public instruction, only one of six members, who are appointed by the governor, list teaching experience in their bios. Serving on that board is a retired military general, business owners and attorneys.

McCampbell, a former U.S. attorney, said while some legislators may have “real expertise" in the classroom, it’s obvious the Legislature has not added in a process to select people with expertise in the area.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case Tuesday.

Youth pastor and legislator Josh Cockcroft, R-Tecumseh, who co-authored the bill repealing the Common Core in Oklahoma, said the final power should rest with the Legislature. He said the idea of legislative control has “tremendous support” in his district.

“People in my district are more eager to produce local control," he said.

Though not an educator, Cockcroft said he maintains close communication with school districts and parents, and he will take plans for standards home to get feedback as to whether they’ll work.

But Phyllis Hudecki, former state secretary of education under Fallin, said there’s a difference between reading standards on paper and knowing what’s appropriate.

Hudecki, who now leads the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition, said she has teaching experience and multiple college degrees, including a Ph.D., but even she would struggle to know what’s appropriate outside her area of expertise.

Most people wouldn’t know when to teach children about butterflies, she said, or whether it’s best to teach a child to read using phonics, or at what age to teach algebra.

“I am just shuddering thinking about how this is going to come out,” she said.

No matter who wins control over the standards, Hudecki said creating them is a daunting task.

“Developing standards requires deep knowledge of the subject, but also deep knowledge of how children learn,” she said.

Anyone developing education standards, she said, needs to have the skill to do it, with a good understanding of what's grade appropriate and how to align standards accordingly. She wouldn’t want someone with low expectations setting math standards, she said.

“It’s not as simple as being able to read the standards,” she said, noting that it will likely take about two years to develop strong standards. There are also concerns about how the current political climate will shape what is taught in the classroom, she said.

Educators across the state were preparing to implement the Common Core fully for the first time this fall before Fallin repealed it. The program, which has been adopted by more than 40 states and was embraced by the National Governors Association, which Fallin now leads, sets national standards for children in kindergarten through 12th grade in an effort to enhance critical thinking skills and make the education process more rigorous. Local districts are allowed to select the curriculum used to teach the standards.

With the repeal, the state will revert back to its 2010 set of standards until new standards are reached.

Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said educators are “very concerned” when faced with the idea of non-educators deciding what should be taught.

“Legislators are intelligent people,” Hampton said. "They’re good at their field. But I would not go to the very best lawyer and ask him how to do brain surgery. Nor do I think the very best legislator should think they’re experts on curriculum.”

Hampton said her ideal solution would be to have the state Board of Education form a committee of educators from all grade and subject areas that would ultimately have the final say.

She said it’s difficult when a teacher knows what needs to be done but is “forced to follow guidelines that are set up by somebody that has no idea of what the little individuals in your class need and can do."

“Because learning is definitely not one-size fits all,” she said.

 

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