As a former public school teacher, I have taught both the traditional state standards and Common Core aligned standards. I have dug deeply into both, researched their effectiveness, and watched them play out in my classroom.
Outside of school, I have observed the vitriol over Common Core. I have read the think pieces and mocking Facebook posts. I have seen caring, concerned Christians suggest that these standards will not benefit American kids. And I have keep wondering: Why are so many people reacting this way? Where’s the misunderstanding?
Sometimes, we don’t recognize our privilege amidst the broken system; other times, we seek nostalgia and familiarity over innovation and change. And, all too often, we forget the millions of students in poverty whose need for reform might be greater than our own.
It makes sense to begin by clarifying the idea of standards. Unlike a curriculum, teaching method, or educational approach, a standard does not dictate how or what a teacher must teach. Instead, it describes a skill for students to master. The difference between Common Core and many state standards is simply the level of rigor, complexity and higher level thinking built into the standards. (Some of the key shifts in the Common Core standards are listed here.)
Regardless of your take on Common Core or the changing standards, the fact remains that United States is no longer the global leader in education. Nearly every year in recent history, we have fallen further behind other countries. This year, we ranked 14th in cognitive skills and educational attainment. Last year, students’ scores failed to even crack into the top 20 for reading and math.
While standardized tests certainly don’t measure every aspect of intelligence, nor should they account for the overall future for success for any student, they are particularly telling when it comes to collegiate preparedness. And, as of 2013, our ACT results were pretty grim. Only 26 percent of students who took the ACT last year met the college readiness benchmark (an approximate composite score of 21). Even more sobering than that? 11 percent of low-income students hit this benchmark. Just one of every ten kids in poverty is academically prepared to succeed in college.
We owe our students a better, more effective education; and the Common Core Standards were designed to align with skills needed for ACT and SAT testing, college classes, and careers—a stark difference from the easy requirements set by most current state standards. With exception to states such as Massachusetts or New York, the standards and the way in which they are tested—often just multiple choice in some grades— do not prepare students for the rigors of college and life after high school.
These low standards negatively affect the students who need to be pushed forward the most: low income students. Consider this: by 4th grade, nearly 80 percent of low-income students are reading below grade level. By college, nearly 80 percent of these students will need remedial coursework in order to be ready for college. Yet, the majority of these students will graduate from high school (perhaps as many as 79 percent—the statistic from just a few years ago.)
As America’s education system loses its clout and disproportionately fails to prepare poor students, it is clear we need to change how things are done. Why are so many adamantly against increasing the rigor of what we want our students to learn? Why are we opposed to a set of standards that pushes critical thinking, evidence-based writing and thinking that pushes far beyond rote memorization?
Beyond a lack of understanding about the standards, there is an emotional and nostalgic pull that prevents parents, teachers, policy makers, and students alike from wanting to move in a different direction. There’s a gnawing desire to want an upcoming generation to understand math in the same way we understood math, to be able to explain long division in the way that we learned it best—regardless of whether or not that’s best for kids.
Afraid we don’t understand the new ways teachers are teaching math? It’s likely because it requires more critical thinking, more explanation and significantly more writing than multiplication tables and memorized formulas. Agree or not, asking students to critically think through and become active, engaged problem solvers is not wrong—particularly when learning to problem solve and think critically is one of the ways to access a life outside of poverty.
Concerned because the federal government may or may not have been involved in the creation and implementation of the standards? Reconsider the facts and determine what’s important: Who helped create the standards or who will ultimately be more prepared for future poverty-escaping education because of them?
It’s easy to understand why so many parents feel passionate and personally invested in the issue of education. We are fiercely protective of our children—and as we should be. We want them to have the best possible opportunities and experiences, so they can go on to live fulfilling, successful lives.
But what about other people’s children? What about the poor, the downtrodden, the orphans that we as Christians are called to serve and to care about? What about those who are so deeply entrenched in systemic poverty that a high-quality education is the only way out? What if an educational shift in a more challenging and rigorous direction benefits those children more than our own?
Some of the opposition to Common Core comes from the fear of test scores dropping—particularly in school districts where they are either already low or already high. And that is true: scores will drop for a short period of time. Take Kentucky, for example, one of the few states who has implemented Common Core without exorbitant amounts of outrage. Almost two-thirds of students in Kentucky are now considered college ready—up from 37% in 2011. The average ACT score is the highest it’s been since they began measuring all students’ scores in 2008. That is true change. That is progress. That is opportunity for millions of students. When we raise the stakes, students will rise to them. I have seen it with my own eyes.
Progress for some does not have to come at the cost of others; in fact, more rigor means the potential for higher levels of learning for all kids—not just some. It means kids of means and kids from poverty are more equipped for college and beyond; a rising tide lifts all boats.
It is challenging to continue changing the system but the system has to change. We cannot keep teaching students with low-rigor standards and expect college-ready results. We cannot continue to rob students in poverty of opportunity because our kids are learning just fine, or because we don’t want the federal government involved in our educational decisions or because we’re afraid test scores might go down for a year.
America is supposed to be the land of opportunity—the one place in the world where a young child can grow up poor and end up anywhere he wants to be. We have built a system that reminds students every day that education can take them anywhere they’d like to go, but we’ve also entrenched ourselves in the nuances, gridlock and arguments that are keeping us from actually making these educational opportunities possible. We are called to care for the poor, to build them up, to provide and guide and generously give. Here is our chance. It’s time to take it.
Liz is a writer and educator in Nashville, Tenn. She works with teachers eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk, @riggser.