Finding the sweet spot between defeatism and utopianism when setting school standards

Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

“But you support the Common Core!” So said Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress on the Education Gadfly Show podcast when I argued that it was a mistake to peg high school graduation standards to the “college-ready” level.

Guilty as charged. I do support the Common Core, which is designed to get students to “college and career readiness” by the end of high school. But I also see that goal as aspirational; I don’t believe we should actually deny diplomas to young people who gain basic skills and pass their classes but don’t reach that lofty level. Nor do I think that we should force all students to take a college-prep course of study all the way through twelfth grade.

How do I square this circle? Am I hypocrite for claiming to support high expectations while not being willing to enforce those expectations when it comes to crunch time?

I’m not the only one struggling with this dilemma. Recently, veteran education policy analyst Marc Tucker, the founder and outgoing president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, penned a long and winding but remunerative essay on the conundrum. In his words:

If you advertise a standard as college and career ready and then deny a high school diploma to all who do not meet it, you will either have to lower that standard or lose your policy-making job, because it will be years before that gap is closed and the society cannot and will not tolerate a large fraction of students leaving high school with no credential at all.

Better to have one standard that truly means college and career ready and another that means the student did everything needed to meet a traditional high school graduation standard.

But this way of thinking about standards and gateways has its own dangers. Suppose that sticking with a high school diploma that is not tied to a community college entrance requirement results in a permanent underclass of mainly poor and minority students who are never expected to get more than a high school diploma, who will always be in the low-skill, low-wage jobs, generation after generation.

That is, alas, the rub. Aim too high and we discourage kids, educators, and parents, who aren’t nearly prepared to meet the new standard, and harm their already-meager job prospects. Aim too low and we consign “generation after generation” to “low-skill, low-wage jobs,” and endorse a system whereby we give illiterate and innumerate young people diplomas that mean very little except persistence in school.

The solution, as I see it, isn’t simply to find a happy medium—a Goldilocks standard that’s not too high and not too low but just right. (And not just because my libertarian friends have warned me away from the “Hemisphere Fallacy.”) Instead, I offer these three rules:

  1. In the early and middle grades, err on the side of utopianism.
  2. By high school, err on the side of realism.
  3. At every step along the way, be transparent with parents about the trajectory their child is on.

Rule #1: Aim high in the early grades

As Jeff Bezos said the other day, “we know for a fact that if a kid falls behind, it’s really, really hard to catch up.” That insight has led plenty of advocates (and Bezos himself) to embrace high quality preschool, which makes a ton of sense. But even communities with universal pre-k continue to see lots of kids—especially poor kids—struggle in school, as the academic benefits of even the best preschools fade.

The answer isn’t to give up on preschool but to raise our expectations for elementary schools—to do whatever it takes to get kids caught up during the critical K–5 years. Back to Marc Tucker, discussing how it works in the highest achieving countries:

The expectations for students are set very high for all students and the students are given a curriculum that is matched to those standards. But the teachers are given much more time to work with each other to develop highly effective lessons and effective teaching techniques so the students can reach those higher standards. Their approach to formative evaluation provides teachers with the skills needed to figure out whether every student in the class understands the material as it is being taught, so no one falls behind. If a student does fall behind, a team of teachers is formed to figure out why and fix the problem, whatever it is, in school or out. If a whole group of students is falling behind, the core curriculum is stretched out and enriched for them and the students get much more support, whether that means before school, during the school day, on Saturdays or during the summer, in small groups, one-on-one, whatever it takes. More time, more support, but not lower standards.

In this system, students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind. It simply does not happen. (Emphasis added.)

An aligned curriculum, true professional development, and more time—all of this makes sense for U.S. elementary (and middle) schools, too. (I’d add: The present scarcity of research-based teaching practices, especially in reading, is a national shame, as Emily Hanford’s wonderful radio documentary illustrates.)

It’s also why it makes sense to stretch students to read books beyond their current reading ability—with support from teachers—so they are not confined to a dead end of low-level literacy. And why, when evaluating elementary schools, it’s appropriate to measure both their students’ growth and their success at getting students to proficiency by the end of fifth grade, especially students they’ve had under their roofs since age five.

Rule #2: Get more realistic in high school

On the other hand, at some point we have to start getting realistic about how to best help students who didn’t get what they needed when they were young. (Yes, if we get Rule #1 right, eventually the number of such students should decline markedly.) Some would put that marker in middle school; others might want to wait until the child turns eighteen.

A new, well-reasoned (and beautifully designed!) set of policy recommendations from the XQ Super Schools folks argues that high school is not too late for young people to find success. “New neuroscience research shows that teenage brains are primed to learn,” its authors write. “During the high school years, big changes happen in the parts of the brain that control reasoning, planning, and self-control. With the right stimulation, even IQ can increase during the teenage years.”

Given all that, Marc and I have both argued before that we should set the end of tenth grade as an important gateway for students.

It would go something like this: In general, in ninth and tenth grades, students would take a traditional set of academic courses and sit for a set of end-of-course exams. They would assess pupils on reading, writing, math, science, history, and civics — the essential content and skills that all students should be expected to know to be engaged and educated citizens. Another component would assess students’ career interests and aptitudes as best these can be gauged. High-achieving students might start taking these exams in eighth grade and finish them in ninth. (This is more or less what the “Kirwan Commission” in Maryland is proposing for my own state.)

Students who pass the exams would then choose among several pathways for the remainder of their high school years — paths that all could (but need not) take place under the same roof. Some would be traditional “college-prep,” with lots of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-enrollment courses. Others would be high quality career and technical education offerings connected to degree or certificate programs at a technical college. At the end of high school, students would graduate with special designations on their diplomas indicating that they are ready for postsecondary education or training without the need for remediation (i.e., “college ready”).

Students who don’t pass the exams would enter programs specifically designed to help them catch up and pass the threshold tests on their second or third (or fourth or fifth) tries. Those who catch up quickly can join their peers in the college-prep or CTE programs. Students must pass the tests to earn high school diplomas—but the passing scores would be set well below what it takes to be college ready.

Rule #3: Be honest with kids and their parents at every step along the way

Raising expectations is hard, as is overhauling our high schools. (Again, see the XQ report for lots of solid ideas on how to make it happen.) What shouldn’t be difficult is using data we already have to tell parents the truth about whether their kids are on track. How is it that 90 percent of parents regularly report to Learning Heroes that they believe their own child is on grade level even though state assessment results show that the real number is less than half that amount?

The answer, most likely, is that the message that “everything is OK” is exactly what parents are receiving from their child’s teachers and school. When EdNavigator, a parent-support group in Louisiana, looked closely at the report cards being sent home to the families they work with, they were completely flummoxed. Those short documents were packed with jargon and totally lacked clarity. Never did a report card raise a clear red flag, even when warranted, by saying, for example, “we are concerned about your child.” That fateful omission was particularly the case for younger students, even those who were already two or three grade levels behind.

Maybe many teachers don’t understand just how high the standard is for a child to be on track for success. But thanks to predictive analytics, we know, at least by fifth or sixth grade, whether a student is likely to hit postsecondary readiness by age eighteen. Schools should not hide the ball from parents, or kids, but should help them understand what everyone needs to do to change the outcome, the sooner the better. One great model for this is a WestEd initiative called Academic Parent Teacher Teams, an approach that deserves to be adopted everywhere.

And when students get older and reach the graduation stage without coming close to achieving “college readiness,” we do them a great disservice when we encourage them to enter the buzz saw of community college remedial education nonetheless. Again, honesty is the best policy. We should make colleges tell them how students with their level of achievement have fared. What proportion end up completing a degree or credential? We should stop “nudging” young people into pathways that are highly unlikely to lead to success.


High expectations are as critical as ever. But it’s only when we combine them with a pragmatic approach that we have a chance of actually achieving them.

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