Oklahoma gave Common Core an ‘F,’ but its teachers still give it an ‘A’

Common Core may no longer be law in Oklahoma, but it has not disappeared from the classrooms.

Heather Sparks, Oklahoma’s 2009 Teacher of the Year, teaches eighth-grade math. In her classroom at Taft Junior High School, students gather at round tables to mold chunks of play dough into spheres, cubes, cylinders, pyramids and cones.

The classroom is loud. Sparks moves from one table to the next. “What happens if you cut it again?” she says. “What happens if you slice it from base to base?”

The point is to help students explore mathematics.

“The idea is that you learn it and retain it longer if you discover the mathematical relationship yourself,” Sparks said during lunch.

That’s central to Common Core, the set of educational standards adopted by more than 40 states, including Oklahoma. But in the summer of 2014, as school districts prepared to teach the standards, the state legislature repealed Common Core, claiming that the federal government was using it to undermine local school control.

Yet more than half a year after the repeal, teachers like Sparks continue to use the standards, if not the brand name.

Things used to be different.

“Common Core is not a federal program,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and an advocate of the standards, told the National Governors Association meeting in Washington in January 2014. “It is also not a federal curriculum; in fact, it’s not a curriculum at all.”

Indeed; the creators of Common Core were governors, state education officials, education experts and business leaders.

Fallin said educators and school districts design the lessons, choose the textbooks and “drive classroom learning. The goal is to ensure our children finish high school with better critical thinking skills and the tools they need to succeed in higher education or the workforce.”

But less than six months after she made those remarks, propelled by a national wave of local-control politics and accusations that the Obama administration was guilty of “federal overreach,” Fallin signed legislation that repealed Common Core.

“The words ‘Common Core’ in Oklahoma are now so divisive that they have become a distraction,” she said.

South Carolina and Indiana, once Common Core states, have also repealed the program.

Sparks said that at a highly transient school like Taft, where 60 percent of the students who enroll in the fall have moved and been replaced by others by the last day of school, the standards were a way to keep students on track even as they moved from school to school.

“Wouldn’t it be great that students had the same standard wherever they moved, even if they left our state?” she asked. “Oklahoma is notorious for its very low academic standards in mathematics, at least as far as mathematics teachers are concerned. I saw Common Core as very much a social justice issue.”

Sparks also hoped that Common Core would offer relief from the multiple-choice assessments of No Child Left Behind, the current federal education law passed in 2001 and which Congress is now revising.

“Under No Child Left Behind . . . it’s basically, ‘Do you know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem?’” Sparks said. “But then all we say is, ‘If you can choose ‘C,’ and that’s the correct answer, then you must know.’”

When Sparks teaches Pythagoras, her students play with shapes to build a model that illustrates the mathematical formula.

“At that point,” Sparks says, “I will say that you just discovered what Pythagoras did over 2,000 years ago.”

Sparks posts many of her exercises and lesson plans, including a series she calls Playing Around with Pythagoras, on a website called Better Lesson. The site has collected 10,000 Common Core-aligned lesson plans in math and language arts developed by 130 K-12 teachers. Sparks has authored more than 40 lesson so far.

Rick Cobb, an assistant superintendent in Moore, a school district south of Oklahoma City, said many teachers were disappointed when state threw out the standards.

Originally a high school English teacher, Cobb described “a moment of panic” when he first saw how different Common Core was from what he was used to. But he quickly realized that the framework was a lot like courses in Advanced Placement, “taking students beyond recall and asking them to think and write.”

Oklahoma lawmakers have given the same cold shoulder to AP courses that they have shown toward Common Core. They’ve complained that the AP U.S. History course, redesigned last year to encourage critical thinking about America’s role in the world, presented the U.S. negatively, as a nation of “exploiters and oppressors,” with not enough attention to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. Other states have done so as well.

Drawing unfavorable national attention, Oklahoma state Rep. Dan Fisher introduced, then later withdrew, a bill that would have banned state funding of AP courses, which he compared unfavorably to the Common Core, as an outside curriculum imposed on the state.

Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s state superintendent of instruction, said that while she intends to “make sure that Common Core never comes back to Oklahoma,” she wants the state to embrace the critical thinking skills that teachers celebrate. She hopes the ACT test, an exam that most college-bound Oklahoma high school seniors take, will serve as a measure of their skills.

But using the ACT is currently the subject of the another debate in Oklahoma education circles.

For Oklahoma’s teachers like Sparks who want to maintain an atmosphere of creative discovery in their classrooms, the big question is whether new standards can help teachers move beyond the requirements of teaching to a test.

“That was the frustration for math teachers across the state,” Sparks said. “We really did work to help teachers gain these new strategies for helping students. If I’ve been a teacher under No Child Left Behind for 10 years, all I really know is the skill-and-drill mentality. But now I really need to shift to change my classroom practice.”