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The Common Core State Standards: A matter of equity

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Bill McDiarmid

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A couple of decades ago, I interviewed a Kentucky legislator from a very low-wealth district, even by rural Kentucky’s standards. He was a strong advocate of Kentucky’s educational reforms implemented in the 1990s. I asked him if he worried that the new state curriculum frameworks, learning outcomes, and assessments would undercut local control of schools. Leaning forward, he jabbed his finger on the table, and said, “Not worried even a little bit. I’m sick and tired of our kids getting the short end of the stick. Parents here need to know that their kids are being held to the same standards as kids in Louisville and Lexington. For years, ours kids have been held to lower standards – and look where it’s got us. Our kids think of themselves as hillbillies – they’ve internalized the stereotype.”

A few years later, I heard much the same sentiment from an Alaska Native educator in a remote, low-wealth Alaska village. Reacting to the creation of statewide academic standards, he described how, when he started at the University of Alaska, he was way behind students from more urbanized areas despite having done very well at his rural high school. A widely respected and effective advocate for incorporating local knowledge in the curriculum, he saw no inherent conflict between “standardized knowledge” and traditional knowledge. “Our Elders always said that our children have to learn to be effective in the White world to protect our lands and way of life and they could do it if they got the opportunity. But they must also know themselves as Natives and bearers of our culture and traditions. People in our village need to know that what their children learn here will get them ready for college.”

For both of these leaders, ensuring that the children in their communities are being held to the same standards as children in more affluent communities was a matter of equity. Whatever one thinks of the prior administration, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is real. In too many communities, this bigotry goes back for generations. The result is what Gloria Ladson-Billings, rejecting the concept of an “achievement gap,” has termed an “achievement deficit.” That is, for decades children from certain communities, such as impoverished African-American and American Indian communities, have been denied access to opportunities to learn powerful knowledge equal to those available to students in privileged settings. The result is an educational deficit that doesn’t lend itself to quick fixes. It requires a substantial, long-term investment – of political will and commitment as much as resources. 

Typically, proponents of common standards point to the lackluster performance of U.S. students on international assessments to support their position. The new Common Core State Standards are to be benchmarked against international standards. This will communicate to educators the learning expectations for students across the globe. A recent analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that the poor showing of U.S. students relative to students in other countries is a result not of our students sliding back but rather students in other countries surging ahead. And as the data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has shown, this is partly a function of not holding U.S. students consistently to rigorous expectations, especially in mathematics and science.

An ethically more powerful argument, however, is the right of every student to have equitable access to the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in life. Common standards ensure parents and communities members that their children are being held to the same expectations as children not only elsewhere in the state but also across the nation.

My experience as a teacher has no doubt shaped my view of common standards. I began my career teaching in the British educational system. My students, like many students around the world, sat their General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations at the end of the year. Each subject had a prescribed syllabus to guide preparation for the examinations. Developed by experts in the subject matter, the syllabi were grounded in the most recent scholarship. Although I might quibble with some of the topic selections, I also recognized that if my students succeeded on the examination, they would be very well qualified for either higher education or the workplace. Most importantly for me, they would be well on their way to being knowledgeable, thoughtful, and engaged community members (I taught history and sociology). The syllabus did not dictate how I was to teach the topics – that was left to my professional judgment. Most importantly, the syllabus provided a common touchstone for everyone – me, the students, their families, the department chair, the headmaster, and the school board. Everyone was on the same page. We all knew what was expected of the students – and of me.

As the debate on the Common Core State Standards continues, I hope that the equity dimension receives as much attention as concerns about international competitiveness. And, of course, the issue is not merely ensuring that all our students are held to the same standards but that they have equitable access to the resources we know to be critical to their success:  well-prepared, well-supported, committed, and caring educators. That’s where the School of Education comes in.