As a lifetime educator, one of my many prayers for 2015 is that people of faith in America will more fully engage in public education and turn the public conversation about high education standards away from political wrangling to focus on improving educational outcomes for all. Lost in 2014's criticism of what became known as "Common Core" was that normed, higher standards are already working, and that they hold promise for a brighter educational future for all of God's children, especially economically disadvantaged ones.
Fifteen years ago, I was teaching hundreds of students each semester in one of colleges' classic "gatekeeper" courses, English 101. The stakes were and are high: If you do not pass, you cannot move forward in your degree plan. The scholastic domino effect is as predictable as it is inexorable, and I watched in helpless frustration as many students failed my course because they were ill-prepared for the rigors of college work. Many tumbled out of higher education, the door to success slamming on some forever.
In addition, I watched as some of our areas best high school students won scholarships to prestigious universities, but when they arrived, they realized that a 4.0 GPA in and of itself was no guarantee of collegiate success. They realized that high schools that were truly "preparatory" relied on high academic standards that were tested for their efficacy to ensure student success. It was clear educational outcomes varied dramatically from state to state and even within individual states and districts. Proverbs 20:10 echoed in my mind, "Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD" (ESV).
My frustration led to action, and I joined many colleagues in various states to try to reexamine what we all meant by "college ready," as we hoped to align states' standards through the American Diploma Project (ADP). We came together to raise high school graduation requirements and link them more closely to the demands that graduates face—in college and careers. Our cry from 2004 sounds very familiar nearly ten years later: "No state can now claim that every student who earns a high school diploma is prepared academically for postsecondary education and work. The policy tools necessary to change this do in fact exist — but they are not being used effectively." That quote was from a report entitled "Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts," and it began to set benchmarks called "Core (there's that word again) Proficiencies" for Math and English.
We had new hope that America could reverse its academic slide into mediocrity and that students in every school in each state would be challenged to new heights. But despite some initial momentum, ADP did not catch on, and went the way of many other attempts at education reform in America and suffered a dusty death. My colleagues and I returned to the classroom and saw no improvement in student preparedness. Still we held out hope that efforts to improve educational standards would someday be resurrected.
Many of us were encouraged to learn that from the ashes of ADP there had arisen a new and better set of academic standards. They were clearer, better researched, and more rigorous than anything we had created, but had a lot in common with our efforts, including an emphasis on "complex texts" and the need for broad implementation. I first read these standards—called the Common Core State Standards—about a year ago, and was impressed to find that a number of states had adopted them, and many of their top education officials had worked to refine them. Perhaps true reform was finally underway, and we could now begin to judge individual states, school districts, even teachers, using clear standards that aligned with the best in the world.
Then came a sudden, unexpected outcry, in many ways led by people of faith. They decried the new Common Core standards, calling them "Obamacore" (despite the fact that they were developed and adopted under states' leadership, including many led by Republican governors) and demanding that they be repealed. As I read through articles and even books that criticized Common Core, they almost never referenced the standards themselves, but instead pointed to things like perceived "federal overreach" and "a lack of input" from local communities.
Thankfully, other voices correctly pointed out creation of the Common Core standards was led at the state and local level and that the standards themselves were quite good. These advocates emphasized that a 6th grade Math standard like, "Find the area of right triangles, other triangles, and special quadrilaterals," was not political in nature, but instead would help ensure students have the skills to step into the next grade with the skills to thrive. By setting such high expectation at each grade we could begin to rise as a nation and reclaim our once-vaunted educational prowess.
And now, despite an initial backlash, the standards are regaining traction, and displaying some impressive early success.
In Kentucky, for the third year in a row, college-readiness scores and proficiency rates in math and English language arts increased. College and career readiness rates jumped to 62.3% - up from 47.2% in 2012, and 54.1% in 2013. Perhaps most encouraging, students in groups that have historically had achievement gaps also are performing at higher levels across multiple content areas and grade levels. Tennessee, another early adopter of the Common Core, made the biggest improvement in college-readiness scores in the state's history in the last academic year.
More educational successes lie ahead for our children if we allow these higher standards to have their desired effect—to improve educational outcomes and prepare all of God's children more effectively for college, life, and work. A recent NY Times article entitled Why Do Americans Stink at Math? bemoaned America's familiar, enervating pattern of educational reform: "The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices." Conventional practices have failed us for too long. I am not one for New Year's resolutions, but may 2015 be remembered as the year when our rancor subsided and we focused on real educational change for our students' sake. We will surely need God's strength and wisdom to accomplish this worthy goal.