Last spring I completed a study of American high schools; I looked at five schools serving very different economic and social communities. Here is the headline: If a student is not lucky enough to attend a high school located in an upper-middle or middle-class neighborhood, he or she is likely to get a watered-down, uninspiring, and inadequate set of academic choices—often taught in a hit-or-miss manner. If a student attends a school in an area of concentrated poverty, his or her course of study often consists of worksheets, out-of-date textbooks, and more worksheets.
While the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15 will not solve the problem of providing equality of educational opportunities to all students, it is part of the solution. Without a robust, demanding curriculum, education flounders. This is not new news. I think Socrates mentioned it early and often.
High standards would seem to be an educational reform that would unite educators and the public. After all, we consistently find ourselves in the middle of the pack in international testing. Many of our kids are being frozen out of the emerging job market. Lack of verbal and math skills is essential for success in our dynamic and competitive world.
Lately, however, there has been some serious political pushback against the Common State Standards. Indiana Republican State Sen. Scott Schneider, for example, has introduced a bill that forbids the Indiana State Board of Education from adopting the Common Core State Standards. According to the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, much of the opposition to the standards comes from the Tea Party and such special interest groups as Americans for Prosperity who see the Common Core as another example of encroachment of the federal government on state and local autonomy. The website, Common Core: Education without Representation, makes the case that the Common Core is nothing less than an assault on states’ rights. The Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts worries that the Common Core may actually lower state standards.
Just for the record, the standards were not developed by the federal government, but by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And adoption is voluntary. Nonetheless, moves to resist the implementation of the Common Core are cropping up not only in Indiana and Massachusetts but in California, Utah, and a handful of other states.
This is a dangerous development because for decades the nation’s poorest students have been academically shortchanged. Standards help reverse this equation. In a recent national study I completed with my colleague Constance Clark, we discovered that high standards help struggling students to achieve at a higher academic level than their peers in states with low standards.
What is the best ethical and policy frame for understanding the long-range implications of implementing the Common Core: a states’ rights frame or an educational justice frame? While I am a firm believer that public education is the property of the people and that local control keeps education close to the people, I also know that millions of young people are having their right to a world-class education violated every day.
I have a hard time reconciling the suffering of so many children with the abstract principle of states’ rights when I know it means that more generations of children and young adults will continue to lead lives on the economic and social margins. In reality, there is not a conflict between the two frames—there is a big difference between a national initiative and a federal mandate. The Common Core has been developed by the states, not the federal government. We need to stand up for educational justice without reservation and stop creating ideological wars that paralyze common sense, resulting in an educational status quo, which every day dooms millions of American kids to educational failure. We can do better.
Photo Credit: Biola University