America’s kids can handle the Common Core

Michael Brickman National Policy Director, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
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The latest polling shows Common Core opponents have not yet made tremendous inroads in swaying public opinion, but you have to hand it to them when it comes to the diversity of their criticisms. Some critiques of the Common Core are fair, some are not, and others have been a little out there.

But there’s one criticism that I’d be just fine if I never heard again: that American kids can’t handle the standards laid out in Common Core.

For years we heard the opposite criticism: that the standards were too low and would surely be “dumbing down” education in America. Numerous advocates from across the spectrum have refuted that point consistently, including our own detailed state-by-state analysis, but it persists nevertheless in some circles.

Others take the complete opposite view, that the standards are too tough and will lead to our kids getting discouraged.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am all for high standards. I am opposed to standards that are beyond reach,” said Diane Ravitch in a recent widely shared piece.

As expected, New York saw a dramatic drop in test scores this year commensurate with the higher standards of the Common Core. This realignment — and its subsequent wakeup call — is sure to repeat itself in numerous states as more and more choose rigor and honesty over the politically comfortable notion that our kids are doing just fine. Some may choose to assume New York’s test scores are a reflection of us asking too much of our education system but it really shouldn’t be too much to expect our students to learn enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to be ready for college or a career.

Too often they’re not even getting that, in New York or any other state. In fact, a 2011 estimate pegs our nation’s annual direct costs to reteach college freshman what they missed in high school at $3.6 billion, and this doesn’t even touch the economic impact. We will likely never see a day when every single New York child meets the new standards, but are these critics really willing to claim we are even close to maximizing our educational potential?

I’m not part of the starry-eyed, “kids can do darn well anything!” crowd. That line of thinking can go too far and lead to, for example, a massive push to get totally unprepared students to take Advanced Placement tests. That effort was well-intentioned and probably benefited some kids but was, predictably, an inefficient use of funds overall. Many of those students were hamstrung by perpetually low expectations, that were suddenly dialed up for one college-level course. Common Core creates a pathway to college readiness at the outset.

Consistent, rigorous expectations lead to better results. Conservatives have long argued for holding our students to higher standards instead of accepting mediocrity, and the Common Core is a major win on this front. We are replacing loose standards and low expectations with educationally solid, rigorous, and traditional standards. Our kids will be expected to know essential math skills and read and understand America’s founding documents.

But there is another, more concrete factor that should give those who believe in low expectations pause: other countries are taking on similarly rigorous standards and students are meeting them at much higher rates than we are. The Common Core is designed to make the United States more internationally competitive and I don’t think you need to be a flag-waving patriot to wonder, “if their kids can do it, why can’t ours?” We spend far more per pupil, after all.

We cannot rely on high standards alone. But it should be almost self-evident that if we want our children to achieve at world-class levels, we need to be brave enough to challenge them with world-class expectations and honest enough to tell them — and then help them — when they are falling short. Let’s have a robust debate about the Common Core, and accountability generally, but enough already with the claims that the Common Core is too good for our kids. 

Michael Brickman is national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank.

Tags : common core
Michael Brickman