Opinion

School Standards Are A Moral Responsibility

Carlos Campo Chair, Alliance for Hispanic Education

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule, profound in its simplicity, is one of the earliest lessons of equality we teach our children. Yet, as parents, educators, and as a country, we need to do better at practicing what we preach where the stakes are high — in the classroom.

Today, the U.S. education system too often fails to give students an equal shot at a quality education, especially within minority and low-income communities. Greater school choice, early education and charter school programs have begun to shore up inequality gaps, but one the chief culprits of this deep-rooted problem is the disparity in educational standards to which students and teachers are held.

With no common thread to help benchmark proficiencies, expectations of what students should know fluctuate wildly from state to state, and even among some school districts. This inconsistency allows schools to regress into mediocrity, and undermines any useful measure of a school’s performance. What good is school choice if there is no common yardstick to compare them to?

Recognizing this problem, in 2010 educators from 48 states came together to formulate the Common Core State Standards, a set of uniform objectives of what students should be able to know and do at each grade level. The program was written in a collaborative way and, once penned, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The work didn’t stop there; over the past three years states have worked to shape the Standards to their specific needs and to ensure local control of all education issues.

This year high school graduation rates hit nearly 80 percent, which marks an upward trend in recent years. Yet, among African-American and Latino students, nearly 30 percent will fail to graduate college in four years. In 2012, one in four African-American students attended a “dropout factory” – a school that graduates less than 60 percent of its students. About 40 percent of minority graduates can’t pass the military entrance exam, according to a Pentagon study.

Last week, the Nation’s Report Card was released and the results were dismal once again: only about one-quarter of U.S. high school seniors performed solidly in math, and in reading, a mere 4 in 10 students reached the “proficient” level or higher.

We shouldn’t have to justify such discrepancies in education. Equal success is not a conservative principle — but equal opportunity is.

Common Core Standards aren’t the first call for greater commonality in the education system — not by a longshot. In 1983, President Reagan’s education taskforce issued a report, “A Nation at Risk,” which called for strong, well-defined education standards. What sets the Common Core Standards apart is that they are truly a state-led initiative, and give us clear, rigorous benchmarks for every grade in all participating states.

A new poll this week, the largest taken among Republican voters, found many individuals are not familiar with Core Standards, even those with children in school. When the program was explained, more than six out of ten respondents supported the concept and said they would endorse a candidate who stands for strengthening school standards.

Largely because of the unfamiliarity with the program, Core Standards have been mischaracterized as a federal takeover of local education. That’s just not the case. Core Standards do not dictate how teachers should lead their classes, nor do they choose textbooks or lesson plans. Those decisions belong to state and local authorities and parents, which is where the Core Standards program leaves control.

As states have begun implementing Core Standards, teachers and parents have raised concerns about the rigors they place on students and educators. It should not come as a surprise that raising the bar on education will bring with it growing pains. In my years of teaching, I have found that students achieve to the level that is expected of them. Our students are capable of more. By upping what we ask of students, we will prepare them with the skills and knowledge they need to compete and succeed in college and the workplace. We are already seeing some improvement for minority groups, which is closing the gaps in academic performance, and the Core Standards bring with them the promise of further improvement.

Christianity implores us to treat one another justly and fairly. Our educational system provides us with an opportunity to live out that calling by pursuing tougher standards that give all students an equal chance to succeed.

Dr. Carlos Campo is a leading voice in the national Hispanic community, advocating for increased college access and success for Hispanic students. He is chair of the Alliance for Hispanic Education and leads education initiatives for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.