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Where Did Education Standards Come From?

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Until recently, outside of education, no one really cared about education standards.  Few people outside of education really thought much about it before the Common Core controversy.  But where did these standards come from, and why do we have them?

It all started in 1983.  President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released The Nation at Risk Report.   When releasing the report, President Ronald Reagan told the American people, "We found that our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability and that is to strive for excellence."

The Nation at Risk report blasted the state of America’s schools and spawned a series of reforms in every state including Oklahoma.  Kerri White is the Assistant State Superintendent for Educator Effectiveness.  She describes what was happening in Oklahoma schools at the time the report was released,  "What we were expected to teach in 3rd grade wasn’t necessarily the same in one place or another.  So, students who moved from one district to a neighboring district could end up with big gaps in their learning or overlapping things they had learned the prior year."

Oklahoma responded to the Nation at Risk report in the early 1980s by adopting its first set of state standards which were called the Suggested Learner Outcomes.  These were suggestions local schools could follow to get some consistency.  Then, in 1990 came House Bill 1017, a major and controversial education reform bill.  A new set of standards, called the PASS standards were one of the reforms that emerged from that bill.  Outside of some updates every few years, the state kept the PASS standards for 20 years.  Then, in 2010, the state adopted another sweeping standards reform, Common Core.  It wasn't controversial at the time it was adopted but has since become political.

"The common core state standards were designed in collaboration with 48 other states, districts and territories who had the same goal of setting high expectations for students, ensuring that every student who graduated from high school and met those standards was ready for college or a career," said Kerri White.

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President Ronald Reagan

Doesn’t this sound familiar?  Adopting standards to get consistency from school to school.  It sounds like a pretty basic premise.  Here’s where it gets confusing.  Destiny Warrior is a middle school social studies teacher in Norman.  She started teaching in 2004 with the PASS standards plus the national social studies standards.  And here’s what happened after Common Core was adopted in 2010. "For a while, everyone was supposed to be transitioning to these C3 standards, and they did," said Warrior.

Let’s stop here.  The C3 standards were national standards that were supposed to help align state programs with Common Core.

"So, for a year, I was teaching the C3 standards for the social studies, but then it changed to the Oklahoma Academic Standards, standards are the same, name change with that.   I know it’s a mess," Warrior laughed.

In social studies, there are content standards, which are determined by the state of Oklahoma.  There are also process and literacy standards, or how students present and communicate ideas.  Those still come from common core.   But for an actual kid in the classroom, what is the difference?  Why was common core or C3 or the new OAS so different from the old PASS standards?  Let’s take latitude and longitude in Warrior’s 6th grade class.  Before, she was excited when kids could correctly plot coordinates on a map.  Now, her tests sound like this.

"I might give a word problem, like Johnny plotted the coordinate 0-40 West.  That was the coordinate he was given.  On the coordinate plane, I would have that plotted and then say “Was he correct or incorrect and why?” If there was a mistake in where I plotted it from the coordinate he was given, the kids would have to understand how he made the flaw.  It was a lot higher level. "

And here’s what happened in Warrior's classroom when the kids had to solve more abstract problems. "There was very clearly a group that could get it, that developmentally could make that leap and ones that it didn’t matter what you did, they just couldn’t see it that way yet. Because it was a product or a consequence of their developmental age, not necessarily their actual intelligence."

Warrior says this gap was one of the problems with Common Core.  But she’s very clear and says she thinks these problems could have been addressed and fixed.  She says that would have been better than the limbo they are in now.  When the state legislature repealed Common Core, it was only for math and English-Language Arts. Social studies and science teachers wait to see what might happen when the legislature reconvenes.  She says standards are a guideline, a place for educators to start.  So, she’ll continue to do what she does…teach.

Rachel Hubbard serves as KOSU's executive director.
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