Exploring Education’s Smartboard Jungle

A Certain Off-Color Axiom Asserts That Opinions Are Like Very Specific Parts Of The Human Anatomy. In Brief, Everybody Has One. Assuming That’s True, Opinions About Education In The United States Must Be Like Hair Follicles – Everybody Has More Than They Can Count. That’s Because We All Have Some Experience With School. This Is, First And Foremost, A Remarkable Statement. The United States Of America, Land Of The Free And Home Of The Brave, Pioneered The Notion Of Taxpayer-Supported Public Education In The Nascent Days Of The Republic.

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Education here and in the European homelands had long been the province of the wealthy, who could afford to pay for private school tuition, or the lucky – those who had an educated relative or other connection willing to impart their scholarly knowledge. While variations on tuition-free public schools have existed in parts of the world since the days of ancient Greece and imperial China, those opportunities were exceedingly rare, particularly for females.

The idea of education in the United States changed with the reform movement ushered in by Horace Mann. He posited that the education system that existed in antebellum America was based completely on inequity. It was a rich man’s game, and he wanted to change it for the good of the country. An educated populace, thought Mann, would contribute to the fledgling democracy and help eliminate the societal barriers borne of wealth and influence. He was instantly and vehemently opposed. Mann persisted and, finding favor amid the social utopia crazed reformer set of the 1830s, his Common Schools movement eventually took root.

In reality, our story could end right there. Public schools, embattled from the start, still kindle heated debates. From the dawn of the one-room schoolhouse typical of the early Common Schools movement to the high-tech classrooms of today’s most modern edifices of education, public schools have been a hot topic. Modern popular culture shrewdly latched onto education as subject matter, helping to keep the conversation going.

Originally published in the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books frequently take us to the rural schoolhouses of the late 1800s. The contemporary “Harry Potter” books introduce us to a different kind of school – albeit full of characters with familiar personality traits – at Hogwarts. Hollywood films from “Blackboard Jungle” to “The Breakfast Club” helped make the school flick a viable big screen genre. Television has produced such memorable (or, perhaps, forgettable) series as “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Facts of Life” and “Glee,” further ingraining the school experience on the collective American psyche.

Good, bad, ugly or indifferent, everybody has interacted with the education system in some way or another. While education has served as a viable vehicle for entertainment media, it has also proven to be a launching pad for political careers. Though tempting to attribute that trend to Horace Mann, it’s worth noting that his call for public education came after his stint in Congress. Regardless, public schools as a social experiment have often landed squarely in the middle of public debate – fertile grounds for concerned citizens and aspiring politicians alike.

Landmark Supreme Court cases once approved racial segregation of public places, including schools, under the “separate but equal” doctrine espoused by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. The same Court later tore down those same walls of segregation in the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The latter case, argued by a young Thurgood Marshall, marked a milestone in America’s Civil Rights movement and helped Marshall become the first African American Supreme Court Justice 13 years later.

All too often, school violence has captured headlines, from the heinous Columbine massacre to the heartbreaking Sandy Hook slaughter. Before the dust settled after these unconscionable acts, Second Amendment fans and foes rushed to dominate the airwaves in favor of more guns or more gun control. With the proliferation of smart phones and social media, a new brand of bullying is making life miserable for a new generation of victims.

Right here in our own backyard, devastating tornadoes claimed precious young lives just over a year ago. That tragedy has brought scrutiny to the construction quality of schools and raised the question of why shelters are not available in all schools. Despite some legal setbacks, supporters led by the advocacy group Take Shelter Oklahoma are striving to put an issue on the statewide ballot in November to authorize storm shelters in all Oklahoma schools. With the unthinkable to think about when packing off the progeny for another school year, we should be able to take comfort in the fact that our kids are getting an education. But the nature of that education is just another ongoing topic in the debate.

Most of the state and federal disputes about public education in recent decades have revolved around academic standards and ensuring equal access to an as-yet-undefined high-quality education. President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), part of the War on Poverty, ushered in the era of equality debate. Subsequent reauthorizations of the initial law have masqueraded as new legislation.

President Clinton’s Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994 added provisions to ESEA, notably for charter schools. George W. Bush kicked off his first administration with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. NCLB implemented increased accountability measures for states, school districts and schools; greater school choice flexibility for parents; increased local control over the distribution of federal funding; and a greater emphasis on reading in the lower grade levels.

With each presidential reauthorization of ESEA, the clarion call against federal control over schools is heard afresh. Despite the original law’s carefully worded instruction forbidding the establishment or endorsement of a national curriculum, we find ourselves embroiled in another such controversy today. The culprit this time around is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, better known simply as Common Core. Nearly 200 years after his Common Schools movement gained traction, Horace Mann would still be right at home in this debate.

Rather than prescribing a curriculum, Common Core’s goal is to set standards. Sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Common Core aims to create consistent standards for achievement in English language arts and mathematics across the states. The ultimate goal is for schools to produce high school graduates who are college or workforce ready upon matriculation. Mann’s original vision was to produce citizens who would be able to more fully participate in – and therefore reap the benefits of – a democratic society.

Common Core seeks to produce citizens who are immediately marketable to colleges or employers, thereby making them capable of participating in and reaping the benefits of a free-market economy. The standards are also designed to align with international standards, ideally making it easier for American kids to compete in the global economy. Economic equality – or at least the possibility of achieving it – is at the heart of both reforms. What’s not to love?

As it turns out, a lot. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, teachers and talking heads across the media realm have lodged a litany of complaints against Common Core. One of the more popular uprisings against Common Core questions its very value as academic standards. In several cases the proposed standards are lower than existing state standards. Most state standards are roughly on par with Common Core expectations, and a handful of others have academic standards that are considered lower. Virginia, citing existing standards already more demanding than the Common Core version, asked rhetorically why they should change. Good question.  (And they haven’t, by the way.)

The most frequently heard fracas around the standards is that they represent an “overreach” by the federal government. Although the federal government did not develop the standards, the U.S. Department of Education has tied financial incentives to their adoption. The result is a de facto national curriculum. Many states hastily adopted Common Core standards before they were even finalized. The rush to adoption may have been based on the fear of losing the opportunity to qualify for grants and other federal perks.

Now that the standards have been fully developed, several states, including Oklahoma, are rethinking that decision. At press time, Alaska, Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and the aforementioned Virginia had joined the Sooner State in eschewing Common Core in favor of homegrown standards. Several other states are considering backing out as well. Minnesota adopted the English language arts standards but not those for mathematics. So we’re hardly alone here. Common Core has ruffled birds of many feathers across the country.

In the interest of candor, I must acknowledge that I spent several years writing and editing middle school and high school textbooks and their accompanying materials.

We have to believe that wholesale educational reform efforts
like common core begin with the best intentions in mind.
We want to be the best in the world in the classroom.


Much of my educational publishing experience involved tailoring subject matter to specific state standards. Having worked intimately with standards from a dozen or more states representing regions from around the country, it is fair to say that the states, left to their own devices, manage to craft fairly similar expectations for their students.

Most states create thorough, logical standards that are well conceived if not broadly worded and rather vague on detail. Some did manage to create absolutely baffling standards occasionally bordering on the absurd or simply unintelligible. Such instances were exceedingly rare, in my experience. Overall, few states proposed specific texts or examples of materials that had to be used in the classroom.

Despite some of the more alarmist commentary, Common Core standards mostly steer clear of stating exactly what must be used to teach a concept. The high school English Language Arts standards do prescribe instructional materials in one instance. The authors specify that “at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist” be used to satisfy one standard. Tennessee Williams, anyone?

Other works cited specifically are offered merely as suggestions. For example, educators are invited to use W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” to demonstrate how a specific theme can be portrayed via two media. These are certainly worthy entries in the literary and fine arts canons, but do we really need to point out the callous indifference of man to ninth- and tenth-graders? At least it’s just a suggestion.

Most curiously, the one work cited most often by the Common Core standards as an example text is the Bible. Perhaps students can read “Inherit the Wind,” watch the classic 1960 film and be done with it. Nonetheless, states that adopt Common Core standards still have the freedom to choose the material to teach specific skills to their students. Although not without merit, the federal overreach argument doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. To be fair, the argument against federal intrusion sees Common Core as a slippery slope toward losing local control of schools. Taken in that context, the prospect of federal overreach is a valid concern.

It’s a familiar refrain welling up from the rows of desks populating classrooms around the country. Kids in school are tested on their knowledge acquisition at all turns. Why? No other assessment tool comes remotely close to yielding accurate results at the classroom level. Everyone there had the same information presented in the same way at the same time (assuming no absences or other statistic-skewing scenarios). Therefore, an examination given to that group should prove to be the most reliable indicator of knowledge gained. Simple enough.

But public education is not one big classroom. There are tens of thousands of schools in the country. What works on the classroom level in one school, in one city, in one state will not translate across all of the diverse scenarios presented by such a massive system. And many would argue that it shouldn’t. To expect otherwise is to demand a universal and communal educational output. Given the disdain for centralized control over local school districts, that is not a desirable outcome. Enter the standardized test.

As a means of measuring results from a multitude of school systems far and wide, the standardized test reigns supreme. Most states have implemented statewide exams administered at various points along a students’ pathway through the public education system. These checkpoints test knowledge of that state’s standards. The results can be used for everything from school and teacher evaluations to student remediation.

Most of the state and federal disputes about public education
in recent decades have revolved around academic standards
and ensuring equal access to an as-yet-undefined
high-quality education.


The Oklahoma Common Curriculum Test (OCCT) tests student knowledge in various subject areas at specific grade levels. Upon reaching the middle school grades, poor test results can result in remediation. At the high school level, failure to score at the required level can prevent students from graduating. Oklahoma’s use of a statewide exam and its results is consistent with other states across the country.

Common Core assessment presents states with a host of challenges. First, there is no existing examination. Second, upon completion and approval, there will be two exams available with states getting to choose the one they will implement. Several states, including Oklahoma but also some states that still adhere to Common Core standards, are working independently to create their own exams.

For educators in Oklahoma and elsewhere, it has added up to a lot of scrambling. Several states that have adopted Common Core standards have delayed assessment for at least two years. New York has opted to delay assessment until 2022 – eight school years from now!

Regardless of the commonality of standards, if every state has the freedom to craft its own curriculum and create its own examinations, any commonality is all but lost. If Oklahoma opted to stick with Common Core standards, for example, some educators may choose to teach Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” while others feel “Julius Caesar” works best for their kids. Everyone may have mastered the concept but nobody will know. We can hardly be expected to exchange papers with our peers in Tulsa and hope for fairly scored exams.

On the subject of tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is an ongoing evaluation of nationwide student achievement already mandated by law. The NAEP is administered by the U.S. Department of Education through the National Center of Education Statistics. The results are reported on a state-by-state basis and can be viewed online at nces.ed.gov. Compared to neighboring states and the U.S. on the whole, Oklahoma’s performance holds up pretty well (see table). Common Core opponents complain that the initiative will just bring more testing. Not necessarily better testing, just more of it. Given the legal mandate fulfilled by the NAEP, another iteration of a national test hardly seems necessary. Score one for Common Core opponents.

All cynicism aside, we have to believe that wholesale educational reform efforts like Common Core begin with the best intentions in mind. We want to be the best in the world in the classroom. In a country that is geographically small and demographically homogenous, blanket solutions are plausible. But the United States is not Taiwan or Singapore or Sweden. There are too many sizes, shapes and colors for one-size-fits-all solutions. Taken as a set of standards, Common Core does offer a clear ideal for what students should know and when. But few things are ideal in elementary and secondary education – or elsewhere.

From Common Schools to Common Core, public education has been a hotbed of controversy since the early days of the union. Horace Mann envisioned our system of free, taxpayer-supported public schools. Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all had ideas for making those schools better. Common Core means to do well by our kids, and its heart is in the right place. But in the end, it probably won’t make schools better either. 

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Do Your Homework!

Summer vacation is almost over, and more than 600,000 Oklahoma kids are trudging off to another school year. If you are planning a family or planning to move, shopping around for a good school fit should be near the top of your list of priorities.

Fortunately for you, the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) has placed everything you need to know at your fingertips. Want to find the best elementary school for your kids in Norman? Moving to Canadian County and want to compare school districts? No problem! Simply visit the OEQA website at schoolreportcard.org and start shopping.

In addition to school and district level comparisons, OEQA provides detailed information from around the state in their Profiles State Report. If you are moving out of the metro or just want to see how your school stacks up against the state, this free report offers a comprehensive look at classrooms from the Ouachita Mountains to the Panhandle.

Categories: Culture & Events, In The Magazine