Years ago, when I arrived at college, I was in for a shock. I had graduated at the top of my high school class; my parents and I had always made education a priority. But, for the first time in my life, I struggled in class — for me, the academic rigor was unfamiliar, even though some of my peers were prepared to meet our professors’ demands. Eventually, because of hard work and the support of many, I did well in college. But looking back, I see how a curriculum that centered on critical thinking could have challenged me in high school to push me more toward the rigor my college classes required.
That’s why I’m excited by the changes happening in American education today: states are adopting a new set of standards called the Common Core. Teachers are changing curricula to meet these college and career ready goals, and children are rising to the challenge.
Teach For America supports these new standards because we have seen over and over again how children respond positively to high expectations. More of them finish high school; more of them go to college; more of them succeed in life.
Too often, however, students from low-income communities aren’t held to the high expectations that we know they can achieve. The Common Core can help all students, in all schools, rise to the level they deserve.
Most parents are deeply invested in their children’s success after high school, but they’ve been left out of the dialogue around these standards — a recent survey by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup shows that fewer than half of public school parents have heard of the Common Core at all. Understandably, there’s considerable confusion on the topic. Some people think they were created by the federal government — when in fact states led the charge. Others think the standards will dictate a common curriculum when, in fact, local educators and school boards will be writing their own, just as they always have.
At Teach For America, the words of our alumni help clarify the importance of the Common Core.
We’ve heard from teachers like Laura Krestchmar, an 18-year educator in Oakland, California. She said:
“Common Core…has shifted my instruction to have more discourse and examination of student writing and thinking than previous years. It’s one thing for my students to arrive at a solution to a problem, but a completely different and empowering experience for them to justify and explain the solution. Common Core is empowering both them and me.”
We’ve also heard from Robert Garza, an 11-year teacher in my hometown of McAllen, Texas. Though Texas works from its own set of standards, Robert makes thoughtful points about the national movement to raise expectations. He also brings up the importance of maintaining a well-rounded curriculum throughout:
“I think that the Common Core will be a positive thing, because it helps us make sure...that we’re all on the same page across states. But music and arts and dance are also important in developing who a child is — without these different areas, we wouldn’t live in the society in which we live.”
When I taught, I also felt the power of high expectations, just like these dedicated alumni. In Arizona in the late nineties, my first graders inevitably rose to the new challenges; they, and I, soon realized their unlimited ability to learn and grow.
The Standards are only learning goals; the real strength is in the creative curriculum teachers will develop to meet them. As parents, we need to understand how we can best support that work at home.
Parents also need to know that new standards mean their children will be tested in new ways. This is not to punish students, but to help all of us see what they’re learning and how we can best meet their needs. We can use this as an opportunity to better prepare our children to succeed in the new global economy.
The transition to new standards will take several years, and it will be challenging. We must set aside rhetoric and misinformation that polarizes so much of the discussion around the Common Core, and recommit to our shared goal, which is to find the very best education possible for all children.
High standards are just one part of the answer. Great teachers and strong school leaders, working in partnership with parents, can turn these standards into a launch pad for our students’ bright future. Whether they want to be astronauts or artists, entrepreneurs or the President, our kids can’t meet their dreams without an education that sets high standards and prepares them for life.