A diploma from an American high school might soon really mean the student is truly prepared for college or a career — and ready to compete in a knowledge-based economy. A national panel of top educators is on the right track with its proposal outlining what students from kindergarten through high school should know and be able to do, year by year, in English and math. It is important work and a clean break from the parochial past in American education.
Every state but Texas and Alaska is taking part, and Florida is at the forefront. The laudable effort by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers recognizes that for too long, American education has suffered from a patchwork of standards. True comparisons begin too late — when students graduating from American high schools too often find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the world economy.
The draft document is available for reading and comment at corestandards.org. From now until April 2, when the comment period ends, there will be natural pressure to dumb down the standards so that schools will appear competitive even if they are not. If anything, the standards need to be even tougher, as Massachusetts educators are advocating.
The standards would not specify a reading list or require certain texts. They take the right approach, setting a high bar but leaving it to the discretion of states and school districts how to clear it. In essence, they say: Here is what an American student should know and be able to do to be competitive in the global economy and to be a productive, contributing citizen of this country. The states would decide how schools achieve those goals with their students.
It is an exciting time in public education. The rise of national standards shows that American educators are serious about making students competitive. And the Department of Education, through its Race to the Top program, is within weeks of awarding billions of dollars to states that show they are serious about reforming their schools to make such teaching not only possible but also routine. Florida is a finalist in that competition and is working on tougher graduation requirements and tying teacher pay to performance. Legislators need to take care to be advocates of good teachers, not simply opponents of ineffective ones.
In Washington on Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith made Florida's case for more than $1 billion of the Race to the Top money. Many of the elements of the common core state standards dovetail nicely with changes the Obama administration has proposed nationally and that Florida is already pursuing. For example, as the state moves toward end-of-course exams in high school instead of the FCAT, it will be smart to align that high school course material with the national standard. In that way, the end-of-course exam would show how well the student learned — and the teacher taught — the material that rigorous national standards say the student should know.
Such reform will not be easy, because some bad habits have persisted for far too long. But if students, parents, teachers, unions, school districts and politicians can pull together and see that it is in all citizens' interests to have internationally competitive graduates, young people will be better prepared to compete in the global economy.