Over the past few months, the Michigan state legislature has been carefully deliberating over the implementation of a nationwide education initiative known as Common Core State Standards. Since 2010, 45 states — including Michigan — have adopted the standard, and of those 45, the vast majority has either implemented the program or plans to do so by 2014.
While the Michigan Department of Education adopted the policy in 2011, in June 2013, a coalition of conservative lawmakers successfully blocked the funding needed to implement the policy. Led by state Rep. Tom McMillin, these conservatives have spent much of the summer garnering support for their cause.
The debate over Common Core is complex and of of huge importance. With the budget going into effect on Oct. 1, it’s a time-sensitive issue as well. But while the congressional battle may be nuanced, it’s clear that education reform is desperately needed in Michigan.
First, let’s agree that secondary education in the United States is not where we’d like it to be. According to Organization for Economic, Co-operation and Development polls, the United States is now ranked 22nd in high-school graduation rates among 27 industrialized nations — a statistic in which we once held the top spot. If country-to-country comparisons seem irrelevant or arbitrary, it’s worth noting that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, every two out of three eighth graders can’t read proficiently, while three of four can’t write proficiently. This is far from ideal.
Second, let’s agree on some broad solutions to the problem of depreciating educational quality: emphasizing critical thinking in the classroom over rote memorization, rewarding our most dedicated and successful teachers without stifling their creative freedom and providing an opportunity for clearly failing public schools to reverse course. This list is by no means exhaustive, of course, but it’s a good place to start.
The question then becomes: Does the Common Core initiative aspire to meet these objectives and can it be successful in raising the current standard of U.S. education? I believe the answer is yes, and — far more importantly — so do an overwhelming amount of educators.
According to a recent poll from the National Education Association, about two-thirds of teachers support Common Core either whole-heartedly or “with some reservations.” Teachers, more than any other stakeholder, possess the compass for raising the condition of American education. Their approval of the new standard may be the most crucial and telling statistic available.
Perhaps most importantly, the recent poll lends credence to the argument that Common Core can be an alternative to former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation — an act widely condemned among educators — and not an extension of it. While Common Core is similar to NCLB by awarding federal money to schools that meet certain standards, the scope of those standards and method of assessing them varies greatly between the two initiatives.
For one, Common Core is a state-led initiative and addresses a major criticism of NCLB — that national, uniform standards would create a one-size-fits-all curriculum. On the contrary, Common Core is a set of minimum expectations developed on the state level that specifies what students should know at each grade level, while still permitting each district to design its own curriculum. The argument that Common Core will only exacerbate the problem of teaching-to-the-test is similarly bankrupt, as each state is given the option to develop an independent assessment — intentionally moving away from the model of standardized testing that so many object to.
It’s this benchmark assessment that has set off some Michigan representatives, who worry that the adoption of the Smarter Balanced assessment — a state-led consortium aligned with the Common Core standards — will lead to even poorer test scores from Michigan public schools. But a fear of failing the assessment proves the necessity of adopting it, especially considering that more than half of students in the state failed the math, science and social studies portions of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.
Common Core standards are not an all-encompassing antidote to the sorry state of American education. The standards won’t pay our teachers more, they won’t eliminate the woes of poverty on our schools and they probably won’t make American kids smarter than their Japanese counterparts.
They will, however, provide our educational system with a path toward much-needed reform. If they fail to restore the funds necessary to implement Common Core, Michigan lawmakers are ignoring the recommendation of teachers and, above all else, the needs of students.
Jake Offenhartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.