It’s no secret that there has been plenty of heated debate about the Common Core State Standards. Supporters say we need the standards to strengthen our workforce. Opponents contend that control over educational expectations should rest with local school boards and teachers, causing some lawmakers to back away from the standards. In May, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation delaying common-core implementation in his state; funding for the standards has stalled in Michigan; and bills scrapping the common core are pending in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
But for all the talk about economic competitiveness, fidelity to federalism, and empowering educators, there has been hardly any discussion of the importance of the standards to the least-served students in public education, the lower-income, disproportionately African-American and Latino students who before too long are likely to make up the majority of the public school population. For those students, the new national standards represent a path to the demanding subjects that many local educators have long doubted they could or should study. The achievement gap in public education, unfortunately, is in no small part an expectations gap.
The common core is composed of things every student should experience. Drafted by two Rhodes scholars and a range of subject experts and teachers under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the measures cover both high-quality literature (with recommended readings like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “A Raisin in the Sun”) to absorbing nonfiction on topics ranging from planets to presidents, Puritans, painting, and prairies, and baseball players—a breadth of content that builds what the scholar E.D. Hirsch calls “cultural literacy,” the background knowledge that allows students to comprehend more of what they read.
With research revealing a troubling decline in the reading levels of high school texts, the common core proposes less Twilight and A Boy Called It and more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s Greatest Blunder. In writing, the common core downplays the simplistic sharing of feelings that’s pervasive in public education classrooms today in favor of requiring students to explain things coherently and argue persuasively. And the new standards seek to strip redundancy out of the K-12 math sequence so students get further faster.
Traditionally, few disadvantaged students have been taught anything resembling the common core in public education. Since the start of the expansion of public education beyond an ad hoc local activity a century ago (in 1900, only about 6 percent of students received high school diplomas), impoverished and minority students routinely have been routed into undemanding basic-literacy and vocational courses, where they’ve been taught mostly to use their hands rather than their heads. The historian Richard Hofstadter captured that reality in his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, where he wrote that “professional education” had come to believe deeply that “in a system of mass education, an academically serious training is an impossibility for more than a modest fraction of the student population.”
A spate of national school reform reports of the 1980s rejected that strongly held orthodoxy in public education, and many states embraced the reformers’ call for an expanded core curriculum known as the “new basics”—only to have local school systems channel many disadvantaged students and students of color into watered-down courses where they earned English credits for “typing,” science credits for “auto body repair,” and math credits for “commercial food preparation.” I’ll never forget a high school teacher in Florida telling me at the time how wrong-headed the state’s new graduation requirements were. “What we really need for many kids,” he said, “are courses in how to plant trees and such.” Over and over, I heard educators define their expectations in terms of students’ race and class.
More recently, the federal No Child Left Behind Act demanded that states create “world class” standards, test students’ mastery, and hold educators accountable for the results—an attempt to pressure educators to help underserved groups of students. But the well-intentioned law’s hair-trigger penalties prompted many states to lower their expectations of students rather than have large swaths of their schools declared failures.
The same pressure is mounting against the common core in the wake of discouraging (but hardly surprising) results on new tests based on the standards. The common-core expectations are “way too high,” the historian and reform critic Diane Ravitch told The New York Times recently after New York education officials announced that more than two-thirds of the state’s students had flunked common-core-linked tests. “Maybe [many students] don’t need to go to college,” she added.
But who decides which students are tracked toward college, and at what point are those decisions made? Third grade? Ninth grade? Supporting lower standards today amounts to capitulating to the race- and class-based stereotypes of the past, half a century after the passage of federal civil rights laws and just as the nation is transitioning to a minority-majority school population. Given public education’s history, commentators’ claims that we need to “go back to the days when we trusted teachers” to ensure their students are achieving high standards ring hollow. They’re a ticket back to second-class educational status for many students. Yet it’s a common refrain among libertarians and public education defenders alike, who want to put power over standards back in the hands of local educators and school boards.
Nor should we lose sight of students’ views about standards. Majorities of them say that their courses aren’t challenging enough. They want more rigor, not less. And it’s also true that nearly every country in the world with a high-performing education system has common standards, even as they give educators lots of instructional latitude in meeting them (exactly the sort of “local control” we should embrace in this country). Importantly, most of the international high-fliers are built on the conviction that hard work is more important to student success than innate ability, that there should be high common standards because they’re within most students’ grasp and thus all students should have access to them. “In top-performing countries, rigor is synonymous with educational equity,” writes Amanda Ripley in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World. That’s not a widely shared view in American education.
As a result, we’re not going to get the nation’s disadvantaged students where they need to be without explicit expectations. If we want students to perform at high levels, we have to set the bar higher, and that’s what the common core does in most places. At this point, we need to focus on the hard work of implementing the new standards, not on whether we should have them.