The Common Core and Disadvantaged Students

Cross-posted on Education Week

A group of Democratic state senators in Pennsylvania has now joined the revolt against the Common Core State Standards, saying “…we are opposed to common core state standards without adequate state financial resources for our schools so that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed under those standards, including those in financially distressed school districts.”

Which leads me to ask the following question of these Democrats: How is it that countries that spend substantially less per student than the United States also produce student achievement way above ours? Why do we need even more money to produce results like theirs? How much is enough?

They will say that I am talking about averages while they are not talking about averages, but about poor districts. And I will say, yes, I agree. One of the things that the top-performers have done is redesign their school finance systems so that they provide more resources for hard-to-educate students than those who are easier to educate. Which would cause me to ask the Pennsylvania Democrats why they are opposed to standards. Why aren’t they filing bills to start raising and spending all the money for their schools at the state level, with allocation formulas that would provide more money for the harder-to-educate than the easier-to-educate? And they would say, why that’s too hard. I might lose my seat if I did that. It is easier to oppose the implementation of the Common Core.

Do you know who that hurts most? It hurts the poor most, the very people they say they are championing. When Florida first proposed to raise its standards years ago, some people objected on the grounds that high standards would hurt the poor and minorities, who would not be able to meet them. The standards were raised and the students whose scores improved the most were poor and minority students. When Massachusetts set out to raise their standards, the liberals objected that the poor and minority students would be hurt, because they would not be able to meet the standards. And–you guessed it–when the standards were raised anyway, the students who made the greatest gains were the poor and minority students.

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

She understood what standards are all about a lot better than the Pennsylvania Senators do. She understood that the world is unforgiving. Employers have standards. Schools providing graduate education in the professions have standards. If you cannot meet them, you do not get the job and you do not get a professional education. The Common Core State Standards simply reflect reality. They reflect what the world now demands.

I do not mean to imply that it will be easy to meet the new standards. It will be hard, very hard, and it will be especially hard for schools serving poor and minority students to meet the standards. But we will not be able to meet them simply by spending more money. We already spend more money on average than every industrialized country except Luxembourg and Norway. We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.

But the welfare mom in Rochester was dead right. The Pennsylvania senators do not have the option of rejecting the standards. The standards are there, in the behavior of employers and selective colleges who reject poor and minority kids whose education does not cut it every day. The only option they have is to figure out how to embrace the standards and figure out how to use the money they are already appropriating to fix our bloated, ineffective system by taking cues from the countries that are beating the pants off of us.