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Standards Opinion

My Cabbie and Oklahoma’s Quest for the un-Common Core

By Rick Hess — June 10, 2014 4 min read
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It’s been a tough stretch for the Common Core. South Carolina and Oklahoma have followed Indiana in abandoning the enterprise. North Carolina may be about to join them. Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reports that, as things stand, just 42% of K-12 students will be assessed using PARCC or Smarter Balanced next year. On Sunday, the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton penned the kind of measured but skeptical big media dive into the hows and whys of the Common Core that Mike McShane and I have urged but which has been hard to find. Now, if you’re a regular RHSU reader, you know that none of this should be terribly surprising.

But I find myself much less interested in all this than in the bizarre new challenge that Oklahoma has set out for itself. In House bill 3399, the legislature required that, once written, the state’s new standards be compared to the Common Core to ensure that they’re different enough. Why? Well, after Indiana jettisoned the Common Core, critics thought its new standards were still too Common Core’ish. So, in Oklahoma, in order to take effect, the new standards need to be judged sufficiently different and then earn legislative approval.

I was mulling on all this when I hopped in a cab this morning. The cabbie looked at me and said, “You look like you’ve got a headache.”

I said, “No, I’m just struggling with this Oklahoma situation. I’m trying to figure out just how different their standards need to be from the Common Core.”

“Come again?” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s like this. All these states have adopted these new standards, called the Common Core, for what kids should know in reading and math. Now, it’s turned into a huge fight and some states are trying to get rid of them. And the people getting rid of them want to make sure the new standards are totally different from the Common Core.”

“Huh,” he grunted. “I guess this Core thing must be really different from the old stuff.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “You’d think so. But, when you look at these standards, it’s mostly the same basic stuff, just organized differently and presented in different ways. I mean, there’s only so many ways to teach reading and math. So, when the state of Indiana threw the Common Core out, the new standards looked pretty similar.”

“Mm-hmm,” he said, “so sounds like it’s a lot of fuss over not too much.” He patted the dash. “That’s what it was like for me when we switched our cabs from Chevy to Honda. I thought it would be a big change, but it wasn’t.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “Advocates have promised that the Common Core is this huge change. The U.S. Secretary of Education said it’s the biggest thing since the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation.”

“Now I’m a little confused,” he said. “From what you said, hard to see what they’re so excited about.”

“Now,” I said, “you’ve got lawmakers in Oklahoma who want to make sure their new standards are nothing like the Common Core. But I’m not sure how you do it. The Common Core says that first graders should be able to count to 120. Does that mean that Oklahoma kids shouldn’t be able to count to 120 until middle school? Does it mean they should able to count to at least 1,200, or 12,000, in first grade?”

“You got me,” he said.

“And the Common Core requires that kids learn the properties of multiplication by third grade,” I said. “So does that mean Oklahoma should say kids need to master multiplication by second grade? Or does it mean multiplication should wait until middle school?” I was on a roll. “And sixth-graders are supposed to be able to determine the central idea of a text and summarize it without making personal judgments. Does that mean that kids shouldn’t do that until high school? Or should they be able to do it in second grade?”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “But doesn’t seem to me like there’s much science to saying how high a kid should be able to count in first grade or when they should know what a book’s about. Hell, my cousin Irene is always telling her kids what she thinks they should do--don’t know that it matters much. Sounds kind of like these standards are just a bunch of made-up goals--like when the dispatcher read us the ‘mission statement’ this consultant wrote about driving safely, charging fairly, and being nice to passengers. Every cab company’s got one. They’re all the same mish-mash, just in different words.”

“Now, I’m confused,” I said. “So, what’s the takeaway? Is it that the Oklahomans who don’t want the Common Core have opened up a can of silly, or that the folks pushing the Common Core have made a big deal out of a silly damn mission statement?”

“Dunno,” he said, braking. “But we’re here. That’ll be ten bucks. Have a good day.” He looked over his shoulder. “Funny thing is,” he said, “I don’t think I’m any better a cabbie than I was before they wrote the mission statement. For what it’s worth.”

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