For most K-12 students, school is about to become a lot more intense. By next year, rigorous new benchmarks aimed at raising achievement in English and math will be in place in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
These benchmarks — known as the Common Core State Standards — are intended to improve academic standards and promote deeper learning. Unfortunately, they’ve also created quite a bit of controversy.
Essentially, the Common Core will allow educators to meaningfully assess student progress across participating states.
These new rigorous standards represent a critical step toward more accountable and continuously improving schools.
But critics claim that the Common Core will hurt struggling students by exposing their academic shortcomings, thus discouraging them and increasing their likelihood of dropping out.
These critics couldn’t be more wrong. Evidence consistently shows that higher standards help all students, regardless of the state in which they live or their academic abilities.
Consider what we have seen in the past decade as states have begun to implement more stringent standards with greater accountability. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which I analyzed with my colleague Constance Clark, show that higher standards are yielding better results and lowering the percentage of struggling students over time.
In fourth-grade math, for instance, the percentage of students scoring “below basic” — meaning they haven’t mastered essential grade-level material — declined by 26 percent in high-standards states against 20 percent in low-standards states.
In eighth-grade math, students in high-standards states had a 23 percent reduction in “below basic” scoring, versus a 14 percent reduction in low-standards states.
And while there was no difference in eighth-grade reading results, fourth-graders scoring “below basic” in English decreased by 10 percent in high-standards states versus nine percent in low-standards states.
In short, there is no evidence from the NAEP data that high standards have done anything other than help vulnerable students. Improvements in the percentage of students with basic or higher mastery of mathematics and reading skills are particularly pronounced in states that have set higher academic standards.
And we see the same results even when controlling for median family income across states; it is educational standards and not household wealth that is driving this trend.
But why does this matter? Raising test scores and educational achievement is important, but it isn’t a goal unto itself.
The real benefit of higher standards, which Common Core expands to the vast majority of the country, is in raising the long-term living standards of children, giving them the education and training to survive and thrive in the years ahead.
We are not doing that today.
In America’s 50 largest cities, almost half of students fail to graduate from high school. For people between age 16 and 24, high school dropouts are 63 times more likely than college graduates to go to prison.
Two-thirds of African-American, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students are below basic in reading and math. Nearly all of them will be poor their entire lives.
But these children are the future of our country. Mediocre achievement and high dropout rates are unacceptable, particularly since these children will grow up to face more competition than ever before as our economy continues to shift from manufacturing to an economy of ideas, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit.
Despite the knowledge revolution and impressive technological innovations of the past two decades, economic mobility in the United States has slowed dramatically over the last generation.
It’s time to turn things around — and we should start by elevating expectations. The low academic standards of our nation’s schools are simply not preparing students to compete at a global level. Unless we redefine equity up, many students will be excluded from today’s innovations economy.
Of course, high standards are just a beginning. We also need to do a better job of preparing teachers, recruiting outstanding leaders, and using technology in the classroom.
Higher standards — like those embodied in the Common Core — are not a silver bullet. But they are a critical starting point for revitalizing our country’s educational system that will benefit both high- and low-performing students.