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It's Time to Change the Common Core Debate

After more than three years, the debate over Common Core State Standards rages on, with some who contend that these standards are too tough and others who believe they’re not tough enough. But that’s not the conversation we should be having. Common Core standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and can provide the foundation to fix our public school system. If we stop arguing, maybe we can make some progress. We should move the discussion to “how” Common Core will be implemented – not “if” Common Core should be implemented.
Certainly the problems facing education in this country have been well-documented. In the last few months, we’ve seen reports that 26 countries rank higher than the United States in math on the international PISA test for 15-year-olds, and that our adults are scoring well below global averages on a survey of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Perhaps the most troubling fact of all for our future competitiveness is that the United States is the only developed country in which those entering the labor market are less educated than the ones retiring from it.
To help our country meet the demand for the STEM jobs we need to remain competitive, schools need to do a better job of preparing students for college. And we can fix what’s wrong with America’s public school system if we get tougher in the classroom and raise academic standards everywhere. We need to introduce all high school students to college-level material – not just those who are already destined for college. And most importantly, we need to align the skills that are being taught in the classroom with what employers value in the workplace.
That’s where Common Core comes in. Common Core can provide a starting point and the flexibility we need to steer us in the right direction. For some states, it may be a matter of ensuring that all students, no matter where they live, will be given the skills and knowledge necessary to prepare them for college and the workplace. Others may choose to build on the Common Core by challenging students even more. We can’t think of the Common Core as a ceiling; as the name suggests, it’s truly the “core” – and some schools will go far beyond it.
And it’s important to note that adopting these more rigorous standards is only the first step. How we implement them in the classroom and assess student performance is equally important.
There are a number of things we need to see in every classroom to raise the academic bar in all our public schools. First, we need to set aggressive performance goals for schools, teachers and students, creating higher expectations for success and opening rigorous classes to every student. We need to provide adequate training and ongoing mentorship opportunities for teachers. And we need to change the collective mindset when it comes to how the learning process works, making coursework more relevant, interactive and engaging. For example, some successful schools have added a number of Saturday study sessions taught by a master teacher, time that equates to three extra weeks of class time over the course of the year while providing valuable professional development for teachers.
I’ve seen what happens when you challenge students with rigorous, college-level coursework and give teachers the expert training and support they need in the classroom. Employing a more rigorous curriculum within the framework of the Common Core, the National Math and Science Initiative’s College Readiness Program is already working in 560 schools in 22 states, offering students the opportunity to take college-level curriculum and earn college credit. Students set goals and spend more time on task. Their teachers are better trained and have more teaching tools and support in the classroom. On average, within the first year of launching this program, schools experience a 74 percent increase in passing scores on college placement exams in math, science and English – more than 10 times the national average.
The results are particularly notable for minority students. African-American students in the program were 69 percent more likely to graduate from a four-year college than African-Americans not participating in the program. Hispanic students were 83 percent more likely to graduate. 
Given that our knowledge economy is increasingly dependent on college-educated professionals, we can no longer afford to graduate students without the necessary 21st century skills. And to change our course, we must begin by demanding higher standards in our classrooms today and prepare all students for the global knowledge economy. The Common Core will help us get there – if we take advantage of the framework and flexibility it offers.
These new standards will challenge students to develop high order critical thinking and reasoning skills that they need to succeed in high skill jobs. Just memorizing formulas won’t cut it anymore. Our experience with advanced curriculum shows that student engagement soars when they grapple with real world problems and relevant applications, and are provided lessons that are interactive and current with the latest scientific discoveries.
To both sets of critics – those who think Common Core standards will “dumb down” the curriculum, and those who think the standards are too tough – I suggest that the Common Core can provide a much-needed foundation for student success.
It’s like the launching pad for our moon shot. If we’re going to reach the highest levels of success in our schools, we must move beyond the old standards that won’t get us there.