Last spring I visited a school in the South Bronx. As I sat in on classes, I began to experience intellectual vertigo; the dizzy, confused and chaotic approach to teaching and learning that the students were exposed to was more Monte Python than John Dewey. One class stands out because failure was not the result of indifference on the part of the teacher; the young teacher was literally trying to sing her way to getting the students’ attention. It was an organizational failure. While some students appeared to be dozing, others checked their text messages as the teacher switched topics hoping one might light cranial fires. The whole lesson lacked coherence.
I am an ardent supporter of public schools, but it’s time to stop dithering. Muddling along with good intentions that foster academic confusion is the educational road to nowhere. Without a demanding coherent approach to teaching and learning, our most disadvantaged students will continue to be unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century.
Facts matter. The analysis we recently completed here at Education Sector demonstrates that high standards help all students regardless of the state in which they live and regardless of their academic abilities. Myths persist in some quarters that high standards can hurt struggling students because they reveal their lack of preparation and low level of achievement which, in turn, can cause under-performing students to become discouraged and drop out. The evidence, however, does not support this argument. In fact, high standards are associated with lowering the percentage of struggling students over time. From a policy perspective, high standards are more likely to lead to equitable outcomes than low standards.
The implementation of the Common Core State Standards in 2014 will not create more educational inequality. Our evidence suggests the opposite; the Common Core Standards will benefit struggling students in schools like the one I visited in the South Bronx because they will focus teachers and administrators on teaching and learning, foster the development of high quality relevant curriculum, and enable schools to create a cohesive and positive academic climate.
Of course, high standards alone will not create a level educational playing field; schools that are disorganized and dispirited are moral hazards that no child should be exposed to, and the Common Core Standards will have to be refined as Barry Garelick recently pointed out about the math standards. High standards are not a silver bullet, but they can act as academic North Stars to keep us from drifting on the tides of fashion and fad.
Perhaps we have been looking at the equity equation from the wrong end. We have been thinking equity drives excellence, when it’s really excellence that drives equity. Leveling down is a formula for collective mediocrity; too many high school graduates are under equipped to do college work or succeed in the workplace. Leveling up creates the conditions for lasting and deep learning because it requires genuine measurable achievement and brings cohesion to the teaching and learning experience.
Today, Horace Mann’s “The Great Equalizer” has become “The Great Unequalizer,” reproducing social inequality with eerie regularity. Honest people have honest differences of opinion about how to undo the tangled knot of education and privilege, but to imagine we can achieve educational justice without world class standards seems more than a little unrealistic. Students in the South Bronx deserve the same level of demanding, enriched, imaginative, and engaging curriculum as the students in Scarsdale.
Years ago my friend Tom Sobol, who was Superintendent of Schools in Scarsdale and later New York State Education Commissioner, once asked, “Is there anyone who is against high standards?” Well, yes and no as the politics of education has evolved. Perhaps it is time to put politics behind us for the sake of our students and embrace high standards not as the only answer to creating world class schools for all students, but as an essential tool for the creation of an excellent and equitable system of public schools.
By defining equity up we can turn conflict into consensus.
Photo Credit: Science Toy Box