Common Core: Wrong Way to Close the Gap

My parents taught me that education was one of the most important factors for my future. In fact, my father told me that he was giving me my inheritance early by paying my way to a fine institution like prestigious Williams College. And I have continued his legacy with my own daughters.

I have made no secret about my belief that educational opportunities are essential to help people lift themselves out of poverty. And there is no question that not all schools are created equal. For example, in 2011, Montgomery County Public Schools here in Maryland had a graduation rate of 85.7 percent. Detroit Public Schools, by comparison, graduated just 62 percent of their seniors. All of us know anecdotally that students from top performing public schools are taking AP classes, while students at failing public schools are sitting in chaotic classrooms where the teachers may have to spend more time on discipline issues than the lesson plan. Upon finishing high school, the former group is prepared to enter top colleges, while the latter may not even be prepared for an entry level job.

This disparity is one of the reasons that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative had many education reformers excited. According to its website, "The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."

The theory behind Common Core is that if the same standards are imposed across the board, students in Detroit will be taught the same lessons as students in Montgomery County. Its creators believe this will take us several steps closer to giving all children equal opportunities to learn and achieve. But unfortunately, what a program is designed to do and what it actually accomplishes are two very different things.

Common Core is undoubtedly changing education, but not necessarily in the way it intends.

Take for example the experience of New York English teacher Jeremiah Chaffee, who attempted to teach a Common Core lesson on the Gettysburg Address. He wrote:

The exemplar instructs teachers to "avoid giving any background context" because the Common Core's close reading strategy "forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all."… Teachers cannot create such a "level playing field" because we cannot rob any of the students of the background knowledge they already possess. Nor can we force students who have background knowledge not to think about that while they read.

It is undoubtedly true that some students enter the classroom with background knowledge, as well as habits and experiences that others do not possess. This certainly gives them a distinct advantage. But to close the achievement gap between these two groups of students, we must focus on equipping the disadvantaged students with additional social, academic and cultural capital, not preventing the advantaged students from using what they know.

My grandfather did not even graduate from high school, yet I hold a master's degree from Harvard, as does my daughter. How did our family make this leap in just two generations? My father sacrificed every penny he had to send me to the best private school in our area. My father wanted me lifted up to the level of the best students in the country. He would have been furious if my teachers had been instructed to prevent the more advantaged students from applying their background knowledge and experiences to the lessons we learned.

The uncomfortable truth about America's current education system is that some students are doing just fine. High achieving American students will have no problem competing with the students from Japan, Finland and South Korea because they work hard, attend excellent schools and have supportive parents. The goal of any education reform must be to raise the achievement levels of students without such advantages, not to lower the performance of the highest achievers.

I believe the intentions of Common Core are mostly good, but I am afraid that there are many problems with the underlying assumptions about how to achieve its goals. And who will bear the brunt of these flawed assumptions? It will not, for the most part, be wealthy or upper middle class students. Already, many parents with the means and motivation are hiring tutors to instruct their children using the old fashioned methods, to compensate for the weaknesses of Common Core. But of course the students who are completely at the mercy of public school trends have no real choice.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to "close the gap" in education by dragging the top 20 percent of achievers down, rather than lifting the bottom 20 percent up. Any approach to reform must seek to motivate and equip disadvantaged students as much as possible, not prevent high achievers from being the best they can possibly be. Why don't you join me and let your school board know how you feel about common core?

Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr. is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md. He co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Bishop Jackson is also a CP advisor.

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