ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We've been examining some of the big stories of 2014, and that's where we begin this hour - starting with a riddle. What do the Common Core State Standards have in common with the Chicago Cubs? Answer - they both had a very bad year. We're going to stick with the Common Core right now and leave the plight of the Cubs to others. Of the 45 states that first adopted the academic standards, many spent the year talking about repeal. And in Oklahoma, it wasn't just talk. The state dropped the standards in June. From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner has this story of what happens after a repeal.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In Oklahoma, the answer starts with healing - because the fight over the Core here was brutal. Supporters cheered the standards for raising expectations while critics argued passionately that the federal government was trying to take over their public schools. The fight pitted parents, teachers and politicians against each other. That was last spring.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Joy to the world, the Lord has come.
TURNER: A few weeks ago, hundreds of students and teachers from across the state gathered at the steps of the State Capitol, in Oklahoma City, for a Christmas tree lighting.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Joy to the Earth, the Savior reigns.
TURNER: In the bitter cold, kids huddled three or four to a blanket. They were upbeat, but many of their teachers were tired. When I asked how's life after Common Core, I got a lot of this...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't really want to answer that one (Laughter). Sorry.
TURNER: When I turned off my microphone, teachers told me the Core is just too controversial to talk about. Some said they supported the Standards, some didn't. All agreed they're happy the fight is over. Steve Glenn is a high school principal in southwest Oklahoma. He was willing to talk and captured the mood pretty well.
PRINCIPAL STEVE GLENN: We didn't oppose the Core. I mean, we were ready for the change. And then, you know, it didn't change, and now we're back. And, you know, we just want - stick with something, let's go with it. And, you know, tell us what we need to do, and we're ready to do it.
TURNER: Here's what happened - Oklahoma adopted the Common Core back in 2010. Amy Ford, a member of the State Board of Education, says schools had several years to gear up for the big switch from the state's old standards, called PASS.
AMY FORD: A lot of districts and states spend a lot of money and a lot of time implementing what was the law that was passed in 2010.
TURNER: This school year was supposed to be the first official year under the Core. But the state scrapped the standards in June.
GAY WASHINGTON: We were sick. I'm just going to be real honest. We were just, like, that - well, what's the next step?
TURNER: Gay Washington is assistant school superintendent in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She and her teachers had fully embraced the Core by the time of repeal. And they weren't alone.
HEATHER SAMIS: All right. So here's the deal - this is the last day we have to work on this.
TURNER: Heather Samis teaches high school English some 200 miles south of Stillwater, near the Texas line in Hugo, Oklahoma. She's handing out a big state test, one she had hoped would change this year.
SAMIS: All right. This is very, very important. I can't stress that enough. You need to do your best on this.
TURNER: Samis was in Oklahoma City last spring with other teachers writing new Common Core materials when she heard of the repeal.
SAMIS: I was sick to my stomach. I cried. I called some of the English teachers in my department here at Hugo. And - I'm sorry. I had to ask them how they felt about it. I had to, I guess, try and come back to reality.
TURNER: To understand why Samis gets emotional, you have to understand Hugo. It's poor. Parts of town are burned out, roofs collapsed. It's as if the poverty here is literally crushing the buildings. Samis believes the Core Standards are tougher than the ones they've gone back to. And she worries, with the SAT and ACT both aligning to the Common Core, that her students will have a harder time getting into college and out from under that poverty, which helps explain why some districts are simply refusing to drop the Core.
WASHINGTON: We can't go backwards.
TURNER: Again, Assistant Superintendent Gay Washington in Stillwater.
WASHINGTON: Because for three years, we had gone down a path that we saw was raising the bar, digging deeper.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE JASON NELSON: Well, that's their decision so long as they are teaching, at a minimum, the PASS standards.
TURNER: Republican State Representative Jason Nelson co-authored the Core repeal. He says the law only requires districts to meet those old standards. And if they think they can do that and use Common Core, he says, so be it, which is exactly what Gay Washington is doing in Stillwater. But Nelson also feels strongly that not repealing the Core would have made things even worse.
NELSON: What we really had was a pending train wreck on our hands with flipping the switch to Common Core for the current school year.
TURNER: Public fear of the Core was just too strong, he says. You can't roll out new standards without everyone's buy-in. There's another reason it would have been a train wreck, according to several teachers at that Christmas tree lighting. They said the state's implementation was a bust. Even after Oklahoma spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, teachers said they needed more training, more materials and more help. So now what?
FORD: Typically, it takes two years to write standards. So we've been tasked with doing this in a very short period of time.
TURNER: Amy Ford, on the State Board of Ed, now finds herself with arguably the toughest job in Oklahoma. She's leading the effort to develop new standards that everyone can rally around because even Jason Nelson, who co-wrote the repeal, says he wants higher standards. Ford and her team have just one year to build them.
FORD: Everybody needs to realize that this is a challenging time for our teachers, for our districts and for the state.
TURNER: And that challenge boils down to some pretty basic math - one state divided by three different sets of learning standards in just four years. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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