Embrace the Common Core

On September 9th, the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli participated in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the Common Core, along with Carmel Martin, Carol Burris, and Rick Hess. These are his opening comments, as prepared for delivery. Or watch the video, embedded below, starting at minute 07:15.

Let me tell you a bit about the game plan that Carmel and I have sketched out.

First, I’m going to talk about the motion. What does it mean to “embrace the Common Core”?

Then I’m going to discuss the problems that the Common Core is designed to address—the problems with our education system and, frankly, with some of our previous education reform efforts.

Carmel will take up the potential of the Common Core to help narrow the achievement gaps in this country; the role that evidence and educators played in the development of the standards; and the issue of implementation—how it’s going and how we can help it go better.

Let’s be clear: we’re not going to argue that the Common Core standards are perfect. They aren’t. They weren’t handed down from Mt. Sinai.

We’re not going to argue that the Common Core is going to solve all of our educational problems. It won’t. No one reform can address all of the challenges we face.

Nor will we say that it’s going perfectly. It’s not. In a big country, with 50 million students and 100,000 schools, any reform is going to be a work in progress.

Still, by the end, I have no doubt that you in the audience here, and you at home, will vote to embrace the Common Core.

So what does that mean, “to embrace the Common Core”?

First, it means embracing the idea that there should be standards that guide our education system, and that these standards should be pegged to what comes next for our students—college or a good paying career. This is a fundamental departure from how we used to run our education system in America, from either having no standards—letting each school or district figure it out on their own, which often led to great inequities in expectations—or having standards that were set much too low.

Embracing the Common Core also means embracing the idea of moving to higher quality, more challenging assessments. We need to measure whether students and schools are meeting the standards laid out for them, but we also need tests that encourage students to write, to think critically, to express what they know in meaningful ways—not these terrible fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, low-level tests. Embracing the Common Core means embracing a new vision for assessment, one that is much closer to what we see with Advanced Placement exams or International Baccalaureate exams, like the ones Carol uses in her high school.

So why are these higher standards and stronger assessments needed? What’s all this effort about?

First let’s acknowledge that our education system could be performing—needs to be performing—at a much higher level than it is today. To be sure, there are some excellent schools out there. Carol runs one of them. But, unfortunately, they are the exception, not the rule. The rule in American education is not failure. The problem is mediocrity.

Every study and every comparison of American schools with those around the world comes to the same conclusion: Compared to other advanced nations, our schools are in the middle of the pack. And that’s not because of demographics—it’s not because we have so much child poverty or a lot of immigration. At every socioeconomic level, at every academic level, we are in the middle of the pack compared to our peers overseas. Our rich students. Our poor students. Our high-achieving kids. Our low-achieving kids. Middle of the pack. Mediocre. Across the board.

We’ve known this for a long time—for at least thirty years. And we’ve done a lot of work since then to reform and improve our schools. And we’ve made some great progress in some respects, for which our public schools deserve great credit. Our low-income, minority, and low-achieving students are reading and doing math at dramatically higher levels than they were two decades ago—two to three grade levels better, at least in fourth and eighth grades. And our high school graduation rates are up significantly.

And almost surely that progress came, in large part, because of the reforms introduced in the 1990s and 2000s to set standards, test students regularly, and hold schools accountable for the results. But as all of us know, this focus on testing and accountability has come with some serious, unfortunate consequences. Teaching to the test. Narrowing of the curriculum. Driving out the fun and joy from our schools. And for all of the progress, about five years ago, the gains seemed to hit a wall.

And there was another big perverse consequence: Because the standards were set so low, and because the tests were so easy, our system sent false signals to students, families, and educators that all was well, that kids were on track—when, in fact, many kids weren’t even at grade level, much less on a trajectory to be ready for college or a career.

So this is the problem the Common Core set out to address: A system that’s got all of this testing, that supposedly is built on standards, but because the standards are so low and the tests are so easy, it gives a false sense of security to students, parents, teachers, and everyone else, while encouraging poor teaching and learning. To embrace the Common Core is to embrace the idea that we need to fix that.

Rick and Carol don’t want you to embrace the Common Core. What do they want? No standards at all? The standards we had before the Common Core, which weren’t linked to student success in college and career and gave everyone a false impression that everything was fine? Rinky dink standardized tests? The complete chaos that is happening in states like Oklahoma that have decided to pull back from the Common Core? Is that what Rick and Carol are for?

The Common Core standards aren’t perfect. But they are pretty darn good. Perhaps most importantly, after four years of hard work from our educators nationwide, they have momentum. They are raising expectations in our schools and raising the quality of teaching and learning. I ask you to embrace the Common Core. I ask for you to vote yes for this motion.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.