OKLAHOMA CITY – 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 assignment, which Sparks projects on the smart board, is to slice through the three-dimensional objects with dental floss and see what two-dimensional forms are created. Cubes yield squares and trapezoids. But what of cylinders?
“Slice it again,” Sparks urges. The students show one another their cuts. They talk about what they find, sometimes shouting to be heard. 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?” A student makes the cut and traces a rectangle on his sheet of paper.
The point of the exercise, Sparks says at lunchtime, when her classroom empties out and quiets down, is to help students explore mathematics. “The idea is that you learn it and retain it longer if you discover the mathematical relationship yourself.”
Helping students discover mathematical relationships on their own is an idea that is central to Common Core, the educational standards adopted by more than 40 states, including Oklahoma. But in the summer of 2014, as Oklahoma school districts were to begin teaching the standards, the state legislature repealed Common Core, claiming that the federal government was using it to undermine local school control.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. Common Core may no longer be law in Oklahoma, but it has not disappeared from the classrooms.
A Swift Political Turn-Around
As late as January 2014, it seemed certain that Oklahoma would start the coming school year under Common Core. Gov. Mary Fallin, who took office in 2011, was an advocate of the new standards from the early days of her gubernatorial campaign. On Jan. 15, 2014 Fallin defended the standards in her State of the States Address at the National Governors Association in Washington. She was chair of the bipartisan association at the time.
“Common Core is not a federal program,” she told her fellow governors. “It is driven and implemented by those states that choose to participate. It is also not a federal curriculum; in fact, it’s not a curriculum at all. Educators and school districts will still design lesson plans, choose appropriate 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.”
Fallin, a Republican, shared the podium with Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, who would succeed her as chair of the NGA in 2014. The day after their speech, state Rep. Jason Nelson (R-Oklahoma City) introduced House Bill 3399 in Oklahoma City. It called for the repeal of Common Core, and forbade any state agency to give up “state discretion or control over academic content standards, teaching standards, student assessment” or funding of public schools or programs.
Propelled by a national wave of local-control school politics and accusations that the Obama administration was guilty of “federal overreach” in education, HB 3399 sailed through the legislature and landed on Fallin’s desk. She signed it in June 2014, less than six months after her defense of the standards at the NGA meeting. “The words ‘Common Core’ in Oklahoma are now so divisive that they have become a distraction,” she remarked.
Oklahoma Teachers Trained for Three Years to Teach Common Core
Despite the political turmoil, many classroom teachers in Oklahoma barely noticed the change at first.
“It happened in June, and when some teachers got back to work in August, there were several that hadn’t even followed the story,” said Rick Cobb, an assistant superintendent in Moore, a school district south of Oklahoma City.
“From the feedback I got, most teachers were disappointed by the state’s decision to overturn the Common Core,” Cobb said. “They learned some things in the four years that we were working on the transition. They are still doing those things.”
Sparks says she was among the first teachers in Oklahoma to hear about Common Core, in 2009, before the draft standards were presented at the National Governors Association meetings the next year. At a highly transient school like Taft, where she says 60 percent of the students who enroll in the fall have moved on and been replaced by others by the last day of school, Sparks saw the standards as 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 the Common Core would offer relief from the multiple-choice assessments of No Child Left Behind.
Common Core assessments might ask a student to evaluate the work of a peer, she said. For example, Sparks suggests, a question might be set up like this: “Joshua answered this question. Here is his work. Where did Joshua go wrong in his thinking? What would you do differently to get the correct answer?”
“Under No Child Left Behind that’s never been a standard,” Sparks said. “It’s basically: ‘Do you know how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem?’ But then all we say is, ‘if you can choose ‘C’, and that’s the correct answer, then you must know.’”
Under the more rigorous Common Core assessments and teaching strategies, Sparks explains, the teacher is not going to say, “Here’s the Pythagorean theorem.”
When Sparks teaches Pythagoras, she gives her students models to play with–as she did with her lesson on geometric shapes–often colored tiles, and prompts them to create right triangles that show the relationship between the sides and the hypotenuse. Eventually the class builds 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 website has compiled a collection of 10,000 Common Core-aligned lesson plans in math and language arts developed by 130 K-12 teachers. Sparks had authored 43 lessons at press time.
“I continue to write and collaborate with colleagues around the country,” Sparks said, “even though Oklahoma did not implement the Common Core.”
On another floor of Taft, David Woodside starts his seventh-grade mathematics students off with seven review questions. Woodside flashes the questions on the smart board one at a time: “Find the mean of a series of numbers. Solve x/5 + 3 = -5. Which of four rational numbers, expressed as fractions, decimals, or percentages, is smaller?” He gives his students a geometry problem, a ratio word problem, a number line. Then comes a unit-rate problem: “Which car gets the best gas mileage?” Each of these exercises revisits a recent lesson. Woodside barrels through the series in just over five minutes.
Students sit in neat rows facing the smart board. Unlike the students in Sparks’ classroom, Woodside’s seventh graders work alone. Their heads are down, fingers flying across the scratch paper. Woodside walks the floor, looking over their shoulders. The students wear red shirts, one of the colors of Taft Junior High. One student’s hoodie bears the school slogan, “Taft Royals: Pride, Honor, Tradition.”
The math questions are all multiple choice. When students have an answer, they pick up a clicker and punch it in. The clickers, which look like cheap hotel-room TV remotes or very old cellular phones, send a wireless signal to Woodside’s computer. Students thumb the keys as if they are texting on cell phones. Punch in the answer, put down the clicker, and pick up the pencil. The room is as silent as Sparks’ was loud.
“Very good,” announces Woodside. The review is finished. He reads a chart. “We had a 91.8 percent average for the class. Everyone got at least five right.” Woodside scans the results and sees that the gas-mileage problem caused his students the most trouble. “This is a unit-rate problem,” he said. “I guarantee you that you will have unit-rate problems throughout the year.”
Like Sparks and the other teachers in Oklahoma, Woodside spent the past several years preparing to transition to the Common Core standards. When the repeal took place, Woodside returned to PASS (Priority Academic Student Skills), which were Oklahoma’s standards before Common Core, although he says he imported elements from the Common Core standards. His district calls it PASS-Plus. “Common Core lets you go deep,” Woodside says. “You have fewer units and you spend more time on each one. PASS has 19 strands. The shortest one is four days.”
Woodside embraces the PASS standards, not least because the testing stakes are high for districts and teachers. The state plans to grade schools A to F on the basis of student results on the standardized tests in April, he points out. So PASS is driving instruction, since PASS remains the standard on the test. And excelling on the test is central to Woodside’s lesson plans.
Woodside returns the troublesome unit-rate problem to the smart board. His tone straddles a line between teaching and coaching. “Eliminate answers,” he says. “Don’t waste time on answers that can’t be right. But if the answers are close, do the division. They’re close because I want you to do the division. Be sure you are right.”
The next slide on the smart board shows a stick figure hiking up a hill. The class is beginning a new unit on the slope of a line. Woodside jumps right in with the definition of slope: “It’s rise over run,” Woodside says. “This will make more sense to you in a few minutes. It’s important. You’re going to use this in ninth grade, in geometry. You’re going to use this over and over again.”
Cobb, the district assistant superintendent in Moore, who began his career as a high school English teacher, recalls a transition to Common Core that originally looked daunting.
He said “there was a moment of panic” when he first saw how different Common Core was from the standards he was used to. “But it didn’t take me very long to discover that the Common Core framework was very similar to the way all of the AP [Advanced Placement] courses were constructed, in terms of higher order thinking skills: taking students beyond recall and asking them to think and write.” Cobb recalls that the Common Core implementation revived discussions on how to encourage students to write more in middle and high school, especially in math and science courses.
“We’ve been talking about writing across the curriculum ever since I began my career in education more than 20 years ago,” Cobb said. “That remains a goal today.”
Local politicians have taken issue with Advanced Placement (AP) recently, too, for some of the same reasons they turned on Common Core. At the legislative session this spring, Oklahoma legislators complained that the AP U.S. History course, which was redesigned last year to encourage critical thinking about the United States’ role in the world, presented the U.S. in a negative light as a nation of “exploiters and oppressors,” without giving enough time and attention to the ideals of the founding fathers.
In a move that earned unfavorable national attention, Oklahoma state Rep. Dan Fisher introduced and later withdrew a bill in the legislature that would have banned state funding of AP courses, which Fisher compared unfavorably to the Common Core, as an outside curriculum imposed on the state. Other states have taken issue with the AP U.S. History course as well.
Discussions of the Common Core and Oklahoma’s next set of standards will remain inextricably linked with the national debate about testing. Even as the legislature attempts to create standards impervious to federal influence, new bills in the legislature propose replacing Oklahoma’s seven End of Instruction (EOI) exams with the ACT, a test that most college-bound Oklahoma high school students already take. The EOI exams are unique to Oklahoma. Students must pass at least four of the seven exams after completing specific courses of study in English, history, biology and mathematics in order to graduate. Hofmeister notes that discussions about how to use the ACT are in the early stages. For example, the state has yet to set minimum passing scores for the ACT as a graduation exam.
“Oklahoma is an ACT state already,” said Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent of instruction. “The test has been around for 55 years and nobody has problems with it, as far as I know. Employers and colleges do not look at students’ EOI test results. They do look at the ACT. Why shouldn’t we save the money and ask students to take a test that the colleges and the employers understand?”
Hofmeister said it costs the state $7 million to administer the EOI tests. The ACT tests would cost only $2.5 million. In addition to saving the state $4.5 million, a switch to the ACT would give “teachers more time for instruction by removing the responsibility to prepare for EOI tests,” she added. Although she plans to “make sure that Common Core never comes back to Oklahoma,” Hofmeister still wants the state to embrace the critical thinking skills that Common Core teachers celebrate, and that, she hopes, the ACT will measure.
For Oklahoma’s teachers, especially those like Heather 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.”