Recent events in Oklahoma have proved the fundamental truth of two aphorisms. First, that all politics is local; and second, that every education decision is a political decision.
The good news is that the Oklahoma Academic Standards for Science (OASS) were signed into state rules on June 19 by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin. The process of developing the new standards had begun 18 months before, when a group of 60 Oklahoma educators, scientists, engineers, and citizens began a process to revamp standards as mandated by law. Using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as a starting point and basic framework, the committee spent more than a year modifying them to reach consensus on the content and design of the standards document. These modifications included removal of the word “evolution” and any reference to the mechanisms of global climate change. The process itself was very transparent: versions of the new OASS document were placed online for review, and comments were received from hundreds of stakeholders from across the state. Approved by the Oklahoma State Board of Education in March, OASS proceeded to what was regarded as a friendly legislature to complete the pro forma process of approval before being signed into rules by the governor.
However, the process to approve the new OASS was soon swamped by the chaos of a Common Core State Standards (CCSS) repeal movement exercising its muscle during an election year. Opposition to CCSS began in Oklahoma years before, when the U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for assurances that Oklahoma Academic Standards would be tied to accepted college and career readiness standards such as those articulated in the Common Core. In some states, similar opposition to Common Core has been generated from the political left, which generally views CCSS and the associated student and teacher assessment regimen as part of a corporate takeover of education. In Oklahoma, as in many other southern states, the opposition comes from the political right. In a state where most candidates, including some Democrats, work to always be to the political right of any opponent, a narrative that portrayed CCSS as a federal takeover of schools soon swept any education initiative tied to a national curriculum reform effort into the same camp.
The prevailing attitude can be summed up by this excerpt from a press release by Senator Anthony Sykes (R–Moore), produced on the final day of the legislative session, concerning the successful CCSS repeal measure:
Common Core cedes state control over educational standards to the federal government and out-of-state interest groups. This legislation puts Oklahomans back in charge of educating our children. Sen. [ Josh] Brecheen [R–Coalgate] and I were also successful in amending HJR 1097 to repeal the Next Generation Science Standards, which heavily promote global warming alarmism and do not prepare students for work in STEM fields. By advancing these bills to the governor, the Legislature has responded to the concerns of families who feel Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards may not be the best way forward for our schools.
Even though Senator Sykes made a few inaccurate statements (Common Core is not a federal program, HJR 1097 was not heard in the State Senate, the NGSS were never submitted to the state legislature for adoption, there is very little mention of global climate change in OASS, etc.), substantial majorities in both houses bought into the narrative equating OASS to NGSS and rejected the standards in separate resolutions. But in the end, because the House and Senate did not each succeed in voting down the same measure, a coalition of science teachers, STEM professionals, and concerned citizens were able to successfully navigate OASS to a place where they could be approved by the governor. It took a lot of effort and the use of social media to coordinate efforts between those speaking directly with legislators and those who were texting, emailing, and calling elected officials to encourage their support of the science standards.
But it was almost too little, too late. The final effort to bring OASS to signing was entirely reactive. The groundwork for opposition to any national standards in Oklahoma had been laid years before by groups of individuals who are deeply suspicious of any efforts that resemble national or common curricula. Chief among these groups is Restore Oklahoma Public Education (ROPE), which was instrumental in instigating the repeal of CCSS in Oklahoma.
In a feature article in National Review Online, ROPE founder Jenni White explained that her organization regards CCSS as the Obamacare of the Education Department. “They’ve nationalized health care; they’re nationalizing education,” she said. “You don’t want to be in a country where your government is telling your kids what they need to learn.” The article explains that ROPE activists spent the past 4 years talking to Republican Party leaders, attending conservative conferences, and lobbying state legislators. Their efforts resulted in the passage of resolutions against CCSS by both the Oklahoma and National Republican parties. Most of all, they used social media to cultivate a grassroots political movement against CCSS that overcame strong support from the State Chamber of Commerce, industry and STEM leaders, both houses of the legislature, and the administrations of the state superintendent of public instruction and the governor.
As the 2014 legislative session began, ROPE kicked off their campaign to overturn CCSS and cast doubt on any curriculum efforts that were not completely home grown. Starting with a capitol rally, they continued a campaign against national standards and met with parent–teacher organizations across the state, speaking about the perceived federal takeover of education. A poll conducted in late May on behalf of a Republican candidate for the Oklahoma legislature showed that public perception about CCSS had completely flipped within the year, with 57% of likely primary voters holding an unfavorable view of the standards while only 9% had a favorable view. When the Common Core repeal bill came to the governor’s desk, she had little choice but to sign it, despite the fact that she is chairman of the National Governor’s Association, the primary group sponsoring the standards in the first place.
There are lessons to be learned here. Margaret Mead’s “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” comes to mind. The other lesson is from the use of social media. The Oklahoma Science Teachers Association–Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education–STEM coalition used messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to good advantage to maneuver the science standards to a place where they could be placed into rules. But while we felt good about marshaling hundreds of supporters, ROPE called on thousands.
The National Association of Biology Teachers is charged with the mission to “empower educators to provide the best possible biology and life science education for all students.” That cannot happen without high quality standards – not only in science, but in language arts and mathematics – and effective tools and training, all of which are determined by the political process. Supporters of groups like ROPE are cultivated over time and ready to respond when needed. We need to cultivate such supporters as well. As professional educators, we have to be prepared to be proactive with the facts rather than reactive with the rebuttal.