Making Good On Our Commitment To High Standards

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Gov. Jan Brewer Former Governor of Arizona
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More than five years after the introduction of the Common Core Education Standards, states’ allegiance to high, comparable education standards remains strong.

Despite targeted and persistent attacks, more than 40 states continue to implement the Common Core, or a similar, tailored set of standards built on the same rigorous baseline. Even in many of the most conservative pockets of the country – places like my home state of Arizona, as well as North and South Dakota, Mississippi, Kansas and West Virginia – which conventional wisdom said would lead a national movement back to the status quo, Republican-controlled legislatures have rejected efforts to return to their old patchwork of education standards.

Instead, states have insisted on honest and objective reviews of their education standards, whether they call them “Common Core” or use a different moniker to reflect their ownership. And, overwhelmingly, these efforts are reaching the same conclusion: this new model of rigorous, comparable academic expectations is showing promise and is worth keeping.

In February, the Attorney General of Utah released the findings of a review of the state’s education standards initiated by Gov. Gary Herbert last summer. The report found the Utah Core Standards do not cede state or local control of classroom issues to federal authorities, nor do they jeopardize curriculum or instruction choices. A concurrent study by local education experts concluded the Utah Core Standards are more rigorous than the state’s previous “disjointed” criteria, are based on best practices and research, and will effectively prepare students for college and careers.

Utah is not alone in its efforts. Late last fall, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam called for a review of his state’s academic standards. This year he went further by engaging state lawmakers to make them part of the process and better ensure the state’s Common Core-aligned standards are effective.

“One thing we’ve all agreed on is the importance of high standards in Tennessee,” Gov. Haslam said. “This discussion is about making sure we have the best possible standards as we continue to push ahead on the historic progress we’re making in academic achievement.” And to be sure, Tennessee has made impressive improvements under the Common Core. In 2013 its students made the biggest year-to-year gains on NAEP proficiency scores in the program’s history.

Dozens of states have announced some level of review of their education standards. This kind of timely evaluation isn’t unusual. In fact, prudent stewardship requires states regularly assess their school programs to make sure they are meeting students’ and educators’ needs. That’s good policy, and it gives officials an opportunity to build on their standards even further – exactly as the Common Core was designed.

Sadly, opponents have distorted these efforts to fit their own narrative, which claims that momentum is building to abandon any academic standards that resemble the Common Core. That’s simply not the case, as evidenced by the commitment legislatures across the country have demonstrated to high standards. And it certainly doesn’t square with parents’ attitudes, which strongly support high-quality academic expectations, regardless of what label is used.

For example, last month an Arizona State University study found 70 percent of respondents support the principles the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards are built on, even if they dislike the term “Common Core.” That aligns with national polling, which finds equally strong support for rigorous, comparable education standards even if attacks have eroded the Common Core brand.

Unfortunately, to the detriment of constructive dialogue, distortion and often flat-out lies have become many critics’ go-to strategy. These small but vocal groups continue to trumpet the notion that the Common Core and other equally challenging standards are the work of the federal government. As the former Governor of Arizona with many disagreements with the Obama administration, it upsets me to see this same rhetoric recycled.

In 2010, I applauded the Arizona Board of Education’s decision to voluntarily adopt the Common Core. We adopted the new standards because they presented a marked improvement in content, gave our educators the ability to collaborate with their peers to unlock students’ potential, and promised to deliver better student outcomes and better prepare them for a college or career of their choice. And unlike our previous standards – that defined “proficiency” with a wink and a nod – the Common Core holds students to a level that restores the value of a diploma, no matter where they go to school.

In office, I stood up to defend high education standards in Arizona, often against the wings of my own party. I urge leaders today to show the same resolve. The attacks will not relent. Unable to find fault with the standards themselves, opponents have already turned to subversive backdoor tactics. It will take strong leadership to guard against them. But we owe it to everyday hardworking families not to buckle. Rigorous education standards are too important to renege on the good work we’ve started.

Jan Brewer is the former governor of Arizona.