Core Concerns Overblown

In a recent Columbus Dispatch op ed, Matthew Carr, Education Policy Director at the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, raised several concerns about Governor Taft's "Ohio Core" proposal. The plan, which is up for debate this fall in the legislature, would have all high schools--district, charter, and private alike--require students to complete a curriculum that consists of (at least) four years of math courses, three years of science and social studies, and two years of a foreign language. Note, though, that individual students could "opt out" of the required Core (with their parents' approval). 

Carr contends that the "Ohio Core" would impose a rigid, "one-size-fits-all" curriculum on schools, preventing them from innovating and from devising more effective methods for meeting a variety of student needs. He also objects to the assumption that students with no college plans need college prep courses to make it in the workplace.

Carr is a friend of education reform and Buckeye is a quality place that often bubbles with good ideas. Unfortunately, they're wrong about the Ohio Core.

First, Carr is incorrect in his assertion that the Taft plan would be inflexible and would stifle innovation in the classroom. Most private schools and middle-class district schools already require such demanding coursework of their students. They know that such a curriculum is essential for success in today's world--and students and parents are beating paths to their doors. It is poor children who often lack access to such opportunities.

And innovation is not in itself an education virtue, especially if there's a proven path that actually works. Moreover, successful charter school models across the land are proving that innovation applies to how courses are taught more than what is taught. Take California's High Tech High, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), or Ohio's own Dayton Early College Academy. All require their students to complete rigorous coursework and equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in college and the workplace. Yet each does so in a unique and innovative fashion.    

Second, college readiness skills are becoming indistinguishable from those needed for success in modern jobs. A 2006 study by ACT found that colleges and entry-level jobs requiring less than a bachelor's degree (but paying a living wage) demand similar math and reading skill levels. In 2005, Achieve, Inc. surveyed both college professors and employers around the country and also found that high school graduates entering universities or seeking "living wage" jobs need advanced math, reading, and communication skills. And Public Agenda surveys have shown that professors and employers alike believe that far too many high school graduates lack critical skills.

In today's economy, even "blue collar" jobs require understanding of concepts taught in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry courses. No wonder universities and business groups like the Ohio Business Roundtable have been championing the potential benefits of the Ohio Core.

Third, young people want to be challenged academically and expect to be college-ready upon graduation. A survey by the Ad Council found that 91 percent of low-income teens expect to graduate from college. They know that college graduates earn almost twice as much as workers with only a high school diploma.

Yet many of these young people are headed for painful disappointment. Just half of America's low-income youth even finish high school. And many of those who go on to college still require remedial coursework--at ever-mounting costs to both students and taxpayers. According to 2003 figures, 41 percent of Ohio graduates entering college were required to take a remedial course in math or reading.

This gap between expectations and performance can be traced directly to poor academic preparation while in high school. The University of Arkansas's Jay Greene defines college readiness as "the minimum standards of the least selective four-year colleges." Under this definition, only 36 percent of students graduate adequately prepared for college. ACT's rubric puts this figure at 26 percent. The Ohio Core seeks to close this gap by preparing young people for the realities of post-secondary education and the modern workplace.

Carr's argument rests on the belief that students should have choices among a variety of schools and curricula. But students who, knowingly or not, eschew rigorous curricula in favor of easier paths will find their choice a false one. A high school education should open options for young people, enabling them to make choices (whether college or employment or, as is often the case, some of both) and then pursue them with a reasonable likelihood of success.

Carr overlooks these basic facts; the Ohio Core is counting on them.

"Ohio Core Education Program Will Backfire," (Op Ed) by Matthew Carr, The Columbus Dispatch, July 22, 2006.

"Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different," ACT, April 2006.

"Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?" Achieve, Inc., February, 2005.

"Reality Check 2002," Public Agenda, 2002.

"Playing College Catch-Up," by Lori Kurtzman, The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 30, 2006.

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