Low K-12 Standards Do a Disservice to All
Commentary by Wade Henderson in EdWeek
In the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, we've repeatedly seen the promise of equal educational opportunity denied to poor and minority children. These inequities come in many different forms, but the most pernicious is the low expectations placed on those who have access to the fewest resources. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Education released an illuminating study about the education of disadvantaged students. Buried in the findings was a simple statement: A straight-A student in a high-poverty school would be struggling to make C's in a low-poverty school. It was evident schools were not giving students an equal shot at success beyond the schoolhouse doors—and students of color, students with disabilities, and those with other disadvantages suffered the most from these low expectations.
Since 1994, federal policy has required states to have academic standards statewide in reading and math in order to receive funding through Title I, the main federal program for disadvantaged students. But none dared to set them near the rigor required for success in college or careers. For all the transparency the No Child Left Behind Act gave to the achievement gap, it equally gave perverse incentives to states to keep standards low to avoid the political consequences of widespread failure. Low standards do a disservice to all students, especially those whom the law was designed to help.
The Common Core State Standards offer an opportunity to address the fundamental educational issue facing poor and minority children who don't have access to the same instruction as their peers in wealthier communities. These new standards, if properly implemented with care to address this reality, could make real the promise of equal educational opportunity we've been struggling to achieve for more than 60 years.
The simple and uncomfortable fact is that states, school districts, and even individual schools maintain two school systems in practice, if not in name—one in which mostly middle-class white kids have the best, most qualified teachers and state-of-the-art classrooms, and another in which mostly low-income black, Latino, and American Indian kids are taught in substandard facilities by underqualified teachers using old textbooks and outdated technology. While these statistics are dire for all minorities, they are compounded for those who attend schools with concentrated poverty.
Effective implementation of the standards provides an opportunity for us to fix both these problems. We must fully implement a shared, consistent understanding of what students need to learn at each grade level and a reliable way to measure students' understanding of the material. In doing so, we must also eliminate obstacles to learning by investing new and better resources in those students who will need the most help to reach the ambitious—but achievable—goals that the new standards set. Higher standards will do little without the investments needed to enable kids to meet them.
Those who oppose the standards need only take a deep look into a classroom where the common core is embedded into instruction to see just how well it can work when the best teachers and resources are available. Casie Jones, a teacher who works with some of the most disadvantaged students in Shelby County, Tenn., tells a great story in the Huffington Post about how the standards allowed her to step out of a conversation on "Ain't I a Woman?" by Sojourner Truth. The standards opened the door for her students to lead the discussion and dissect the speech on their own. The 11th and 12th graders held a 30-minute conversation in which everyone participated and used the speech to support their arguments. These students were amazed at and proud of their accomplishments and requested that Ms. Jones provide more opportunities for them to engage with one another.
These kinds of moments are happening in classrooms all over the country. We have to be willing to hold high expectations for all students, believe they can get there, and provide them with the steps to reach them. Investments in students' academic lives require more than just the procurement of iPads or new textbooks.
Civil and human rights groups, including the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the National Indian Education Association, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, support the common core, because minority and low-income students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners deserve consistent, higher standards. Civil rights groups expect policymakers to make the necessary investments—both financially and pedagogically—to support the instruction of the common core. It's the only way that teachers, students, and parents will be able to realize the potential of the standards.
Educators who have been implementing the standards in their classrooms for the last couple of years and have the resources and support of their states or districts have already seen remarkable improvement in student performance. Kentucky, the first state to implement the common core, increased the percentage of high school graduates ready for college and careers from 34 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2014, according to an online opinion essay by Terry Holliday, the state's education commissioner. Tennessee and the District of Columbia, both of which were early adopters, led the country in student gains in 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. According to a 2014 poll from Scholastic, the longer that schools, districts, and states have been using the standards, the more likely teachers and school leaders are to say they are working and working well.
But the standards are now under assault from those who have political rather than educational agendas. Newly elected state superintendents in Arizona and Georgia vigorously opposed the standards on the campaign trail. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a possible presidential candidate, last year called for his state to repeal the standards (although he has since backed off that declaration), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has engaged in an all-out political war on the standards. Many state legislatures are poised to take action on anti-common-core bills as their legislative sessions kick off.
Given Tennessee's stellar showing on the most recent NAEP exams, it is particularly regrettable that Republicans in that state's legislative body are eager to jettison the valuable work of Gov. Bill Haslam and the state's recently departed education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, to pacify elements of their base.
It is unfortunate that Republican partisans cannot accept what leaders in their own party—people like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, and former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett—have long known: Our nation's most vulnerable children deserve more than we've given them in the last 60 years. In states and school districts throughout the country, teachers, parents, and other community members need to work together to achieve the promise of consistent, higher standards for every child in America.
Sixty years after Brown opened the door to educational opportunity for all, the common-core standards offer us an opportunity to pass through it.