The re-election of President Barack Obama has many proponents of standards-based education reform feeling a strong sense of relief. The president has been a long-term advocate for the national adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which bring continuity to what’s taught in every classroom and expected of students nationwide. Developed by a diverse group of stakeholders in order to level the academic playing field, the standards are particularly important to students from low-income families who will now be expected to meet the same academic goals as their more affluent peers. But those of us who support the idea of standards shouldn’t rest now. It is my belief that the vision of national learning standards is in jeopardy.
For starters, despite the president’s support of the common core, the administration’s No Child Left Behind Act waivers that allow individual states to set moving proficiency targets for struggling students are counter to the standards’ objectives. And although 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, the challenges facing many urban and rural schools that serve large numbers of low-income students make implementation an uphill battle.
As the president of College for Every Student, a nonprofit that’s committed to improving college readiness for some 20,000 students from lower-income families, I hope we can keep the standards effort on track. While our organization works hard to provide mentors, offer leadership training, and boost college aspirations for middle and high school students, we know this will only take them so far. Together, we must ensure that all students do the work needed to achieve authentic classroom success that can carry them to college and beyond.
Among the possible stumbling blocks on the road to common-core implementation are the peripatetic lives of some of our nation’s most vulnerable students. Many move through several school districts and school buildings in the course of their K-12 education. According to a 2005 study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, more than 50 percent of children in poverty move every year of elementary school. These students need what they are missing the most: continuity. The subject matter they’re expected to learn during the first half of 8th grade in one district must be in sync with what will be expected of them in the second half of the year in another district. While constancy of curriculum may seem like common sense, it hasn’t been common practice.
Together, we must ensure that all students do the work needed to achieve authentic classroom success that can carry them to college and beyond."
The implementation of standards is critical for youngsters growing up in poverty because of a more limited exposure to language. Studies show that, by the age of 4, these children have heard an average of 30 million fewer words spoken than students from middle-class families. And instead of lowering expectations for them, we need to double down on our classroom efforts to ensure they, too, graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills that prepare them for life success. This will only happen if they’re expected to perform to the same standards as their peers.
The key reason I support the implementation of the common standards is my organization’s experience: We’ve seen firsthand the impact that high expectations can have on students who face economic hardship. We have our own de facto core standards for our students, with clear and decisive metrics that are consistent for every child.
We expect our cohort, in addition to having mentors, to mentor other students: All of our students are expected to serve others, with the goal of improving their schools and their communities. This commitment develops leadership skills, personal aspirations, and resilience that lead to college success.
And while we focus a great deal of effort on creating opportunities for our students to gain access to college, we also place emphasis on ensuring that they’re prepared to succeed once they arrive. We speak about the value and importance of the standards to our students, and we encourage their buy-in. We also continue to urge the 200 schools we work with to embrace the standards. We believe that local, sustained commitment will ultimately determine the common core’s success.
We work with community leaders in the towns where our students live to ensure their understanding of the standards’ importance and the role the standards can play in preparing young people for their academic and professional lives once they leave high school. We encourage community leaders to work with teachers, sharing the skills and knowledge they know students will need to be successful. Not surprisingly, business leaders from some of the nation’s biggest employers, including General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney World, Apple, and Intel, have echoed the same message.
This July at the Business and Education Summit in Orlando, Fla., Bob Corcoran, the chairman and president of the GE Foundation, noted, “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right—to adopt the common core for college and career readiness in all of America’s schools.”
Let’s keep the momentum going. Let’s ensure that all teachers, students, and families embrace the common-core movement. Let’s make sure they, too, see the potential for the profound impact the standards could have on their schools, their communities, even their lives. This broad-based effort to ensure the standards’ implementation is vital to the fulfillment of the new American Dream, and it requires the support of every one of us.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as Standards Momentum Is Still in Jeopardy