Back to school – and new common standards?

So far, 47 states have signed on to the 'common core state standards' launched by the National Governors Association in 2009. The standards ensure uniformity in what's taught in every classroom nationwide. But we need follow-through at the local level. Here's what you can do.

Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal/AP
Wanda Wicks reviews a problem while Camilla Harton, a fellow teacher, looks on during training at Houston High School, July 12, in Germantown, Tenn. Teachers gathered for the session to prepare to implement the new 'common core state standards' for teaching. Op-ed contributor Rick Dalton writes: 'Without clear, consistent standards, America’s schools will remain adrift and many of its students lost at sea.'

Democracy is like herding cats – and so is education reform. As America’s public schools consider new common standards in subjects such as math and language arts, it’s time to act on these standards while the cats are all in the same room.

So far, 47 states have signed on to the “common core state standards” launched in 2009 by the National Governors Association. The standards would ensure uniformity in what’s taught in every classroom and what’s expected of every student nationwide. Each grade level would work toward the same goals, instead of experiencing educational chaos – thousands of different goals and curricula.

But even an extraordinary commitment such as this – which also has the backing of the two main teachers unions as well as Republicans and Democrats from Main St. to Pennsylvania Ave. – can disappear when the chalk hits the chalkboard. It can face resistance, indifference, or simply fall beneath other priorities. 

That’s why we need to turn our attention to teachers, parents, and other community leaders and get the buy-in needed at the micro level.

Without clear, consistent standards, America’s schools will remain adrift and many of its students lost at sea. Consider an example in Kentucky.

A few years back, a Kentucky school district had 167 different mathematics curricula being taught in its 152 schools. Instead of clear goals and consistent content, there was a mathematical free-for-all. That’s what’s been happening in too many of our country’s schools for far too long.

Some argue that the common core standards would discourage teacher creativity and dumb down requirements. I disagree. Identifying a set of requirements that all students could count on attaining would instead strengthen accountability and provide a clear educational map for all students.

Consider the consequences of not acting and maintaining the status quo. Since 1980, the educational gap between low-income students and their higher income peers has grown wider every year, as measured by standardized test scores, high school graduation, college-going and college-graduation rates. Continuing on this course is the equivalent of “national suicide,” as columnist David Brooks put it in The New York Times last month.

The common core standards would level the playing field and show that low-income children matter. Those Kentucky students – and children from thousands of other school systems nationwide – would all be taught the same content in algebra and calculus, and even better, they would build the foundation in earlier grades for algebra, considered a gateway to academic rigor and college success.

When we insist on the same educational attainment from kids who grow up in our poorest communities as from their peers in suburbs like Greenwich, Conn., Highland Park, Texas, and Winnetka, Ill., we usher in the New American Dream.

Consider the impact of raising scores or increasing the proportion of US citizens with college degrees. A Stanford University study projected that an average increase of 5 percent in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores would lead to a gain of nearly $1 trillion annually in the US economy. Significant increases in college attainment would have a similar economic impact.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right – to adopt the common core in all of America’s schools,” says Bob Corcoran, president and chairman of the GE Foundation, which has a strong interest in the core standards.

Let’s not miss the moment. The common core has been adopted at the macro level by chief school officers, governors, and other legislators. We all can play a role in making sure the standards are implemented at the local level. Here’s what you can do:

1. Learn about the common core standards. Go online. Follow what’s happening.

2. Create some buzz in your community. Tell your school board, teachers, and neighbors how the common core can help our children compete with their global peers. 

3. Ask your school leaders to offer a forum – online or in-person – on the common core so that you and your community learn where your district is with the standards.

As the leader of a nonprofit that works with 20,000 low-income students in 24 states – almost every one of whom will go to college, I am committed to making sure that our children, their families and teachers are aware of the common core movement. It can have a profound impact on them, their schools, and their communities.

This New American Dream requires the support of every one of us.

Rick Dalton is the president and CEO of College For Every Student, a national nonprofit that helps underserved students take steps toward college success.

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