Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” As an educator, I believe Mr. Franklin’s statement is accurate. Recently, however, an international ranking of educational success found that despite its role as a global superpower, the United States lags behind other countries. Top performers include Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan, and Korea. Finland grabbed the top spot while the United States ranked 17th in the world in science and 24th in math. Yesterday, The Washington Post published data from the ACT that speaks to the “gap” in college preparedness. The data shows that in 2009, 91 percent of high school educators believed their students were well-prepared for college level work; only 26 percent of college educators believed these students were prepared for college level work. In 2012, 89 percent of high school educators believed their students were prepared for college level work while still only 26 percent of college educators agreed. So, the question remains, “How do we better prepare our students to compete in an increasingly educated world?”
More than a decade ago, then President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in an attempt to “hold every State, district, and school accountable for 100 percent of students being proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.” The Act received great bipartisan support and many believed it would be a positive step toward improving the nation’s K-12 schools and ensuring students were prepared for higher education or vocational work. Federally mandated and initially offering no flexibility in implementation, NCLB has not produced the results anticipated. Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, addressed the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) saying of NCLB that while the intention and goals of the Act were “right,” “…in practice, NCLB unintentionally encourages States to lower their standards so that more students would appear to be proficient, even though they weren’t…” Eventually, in 2011, the Obama Administration began offering waivers for states so that each could meet the requirements of NCLB in its own way.
Recognizing the tremendous paperwork associated with compliance (some 7 million man hours as reported in a February 2013 article on the Heritage Foundation’s blog) and the “onerous” nature of many NCLB requirements, many states have requested (and have been granted) waivers. As of February of this year, 44 states and the District of Columbia have requested waivers. As Lindsey Burke, author of the Heritage Foundation blog article, points out, however, these waivers come with certain “strings,” namely that states receiving waivers agree to adopt “’standards that are common to a significant number of states.’” Interestingly, the only framework that fits the criteria stated above for a waiver is the Common Core State Standards meaning that states receiving NCLB waivers are being redirected to this set of standards as an alternative to the prescriptive nature of the NCLB requirements.
“The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” The Common Core framework is not a government mandate or initiative (though, as noted above, states receiving NCLB waivers have few alternatives to signing on if they want the NCLB waiver). It is a voluntary initiative which 45 states, the District of Columbia, 4 territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted.
The Common Core Standards are designed to ensure that students have “the knowledge and skills…within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.” In developing the Standards, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), drafted standards and allowed national organizations representing teachers, postsecondary educators, civil rights groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities to comment. Once that initial round of feedback was received and incorporated appropriately into the draft Standards, the framework was opened for public comment. Nearly 10,000 responses were received. In this way, one would believe that the Standards have been properly vetted and reviewed by interested parties.
Whereas the NCLB was developed on Capitol Hill, the Common Core Standards took into account the “on the ground” experience of educators themselves. Not only did the group developing the standards cut across the educational landscape, it also cut across the nation, bringing together educators and administrators from every state to develop a clear set of goals for every student. In March, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held a panel during which educators debated the merits of this new educational initiative. AEI’s Mike McShane expressed concern over the challenges associated with such an initiative which involves collaboration between so many actors. In response, however, Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association (NEA) believes there is promise in the initiative’s emphasis on collaboration, viewing the Common Core Standards as an opportunity to encourage and advance collaboration that will ensure the initiative’s success. Other panelists noted that there could be issues surrounding accountability and governance associated with the implementation of the initiative. According to AEI’s summary of the panel, panelists agreed that “the success or failure of the Common Core will hinge on these implementation challenges…”
When compared to the No Child Left Behind Act, the Common Core Standards initiative does seem to hold more promise for improving the nation’s learning outcomes among K-12 students. As the AEI panel notes, however, there will be challenges in implementation. With that being said, however, it is important to remember that any such initiative – one stretching across such a vast system as that of K-12 education and across such a wide geographic area – will bring challenges. We ought not to shy away from such initiatives because of the challenges, however. Only time will tell if the Common Core Standards initiative will be more successful than No Child Left Behind but the collaborative and non-prescriptive nature of the former may work in the initiative’s favor. Collaboration and the sharing of best practices among educators have typically led to positive innovation and advancement. One thing is for certain, though, for the sake of our educational ranking in an increasingly competitive world and, more importantly, for the sake of our children’s success, we must ensure that our students are as well prepared as possible.