Earlier this week I attended the GE Foundation's Summer Business and Education Summit in Orlando. Most of the two-day conversation among the 150 or so participants revolved around the Common Core and the implementation challenges this effort to reboot public education across 46 states is sure to face in the coming years. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush captured the scale of the challenge when he told the gathering on the first morning that states are heading for a “train wreck.” He noted that when the new standards and assessments come fully online in 2014-15 that many communities, schools and families are in for a rude awakening.

Governor Bush said that the more rigorous Common Core standards, if backed up by equally rigorous assessments, will show that only one in three children in America would qualify as college or career ready. Bush warned that such bluntness about the poor health of American education and student achievement will trigger serious political backtracking. He said, “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover and they’re going to be running fast.”

But, as Governor Bush and other speakers during the two day conversation argued, running away from the Common Core would be a huge mistake and a serious step back for the country, its children, and its future. This, in fact, was the overwhelming feeling of the group of business leaders gathered in Orlando. A recurring message throughout the event was that states must move forward with the Common Core, and that business must be a key champion for the effort, especially when the going gets tough.

Several speakers warned that if the Common Core effort fails it will result in the further eroding of America's international competitiveness. During breakout sessions business leaders from some of the largest, most innovative and successful companies in the world – General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney World, Apple Inc., and Intel – lamented that they had good jobs in American factories and offices they couldn’t fill because they couldn’t find candidates with the required math and science skills to do the work.

In fact, it was reported, "during the last recession there were 3 million jobs that went unfilled because there were not enough prepared workers to do the work." This was backed up by findings in the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness report Road Map to Renewal that read, “When asked about skilled production jobs, 74% of businesses said that workforce shortages or skills deficiencies were having a negative impact on their ability to expand operations or improve productivity. In the US Manufacturing sector, a recent survey of 94 CEOs estimated the total impact of the skilled labor shortage at $4.7 billion, an average loss of $50 million per manufacturing firm."

The most sobering presentation given in Orlando was by Dr. William H. Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University (and one of the lead authors of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics). Schmidt shared data from his book Inequality for All that reported it isn’t just America’s lowest performing students who are falling further behind, but even our best students are increasingly mediocre in international comparisons. According to Schmidt, "our top 5 percent of students are in the middle of international comparisons in mathematics." He attributed our problem to fragmented and fractured curriculum. Schmidt said that schools in the United States teach math in “largely incoherent and illogical ways.” In fact, according to Schmidt, the U.S. curricular philosophy has been totally out of whack for years and because of this there has been very little coherence in the teaching of mathematics. Not surprising then that 15-year-olds in more than 20 countries had higher mathematics achievement scores than our kids on international assessments in 2009. 

Schmidt said the Common Core mathematics standards tackle this fragmented nature of learning by creating a far more logical, visible and coherent approach to teaching mathematics over multiple years of instruction. Schmidt shared slides showing how the Common Core is benchmarked internationally and said there is “90% overlap between the Common Core and the standards used by international top-performers.” He went on to say, despite what critics may content (see here), that the Common Core standards in mathematics are better “than even what the highest performing states now have.” He concluded by saying if we can get the assessments right and stay true to rigorous cut scores then states now have it within their grasps to finally start improving student achievement in mathematics.

But, it wasn’t just business leaders, former governors, and researchers that spoke to the group in Orlando about the importance of the Common Core. Teacher union leaders Dennis Van Roekel of the NEA and Randi Weingarten of the AFT also joined the conversation and expressed their support, and that of their members, for the Common Core. David Coleman, a leading architect of the Common Core and future president of the College Board, told the gathering, “We wouldn’t have the Common Core without Randi and Dennis.” Both union heads shared that their members support the Common Core, but that there are real concerns and issues around ensuring that teachers are actually prepared to teach to these more rigorous standards. Schmidt shared survey findings during this presentation that showed, “Our teachers are not prepared to teach these more rigorous standards and they don’t know it yet.” Schmidt warned that teachers still have a superficial knowledge about how the new standards will dramatically differ from the current standards.   

Van Roekel said that over the long haul teacher “quality at the front door is huge.” We need better candidates getting into teaching. Governor Bush concluded his comments on the same theme when he said “the Common Core presents a golden opportunity for innovators, especially those who can come up with new and better alternatives for preparing teachers.”

Business is coming around to the importance of the Common Core and why their voice in supporting it is critical. Business leadership can help ensure that state lawmakers and educational leaders keep a stiff spine when the going gets tough and test scores across the country tank. The fact is that the Common Core will expose further just how misaligned education is to the needs of our children, our economy, and our society. It is going to take strong voices across the spectrum to stay the course, and kudos to the business community for joining the fray.

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