Editorial: Uniform, high standards still make sense for high school diplomas

The original idea of the Common Core — set high national standards, then give teachers autonomy to teach them — is still right.
Without common standards, how can there be meaningful comparisons of classroom achievement?
Without common standards, how can there be meaningful comparisons of classroom achievement?
Published February 8
Updated February 11

In a globally competitive marketplace, there is still no way to know how a high school graduate in Florida stacks up against students from other states, let alone the world. That is wrong, it’s a disservice to students, and it’s worth remembering that fixing that mistake was why the Common Core standards started with such promise a decade ago. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent executive order telling the education commissioner to “articulate how Florida will eliminate Common Core (Florida Standards) and ensure we return to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic” met with cautious praise, a sign of just how far the practice of Common Core had strayed from its original intelligent premise. As support for Common Core has collapsed, whether because of testing fatigue or fears of government overreach, the standards themselves matter more than ever.

Ironically, the governor’s executive order says “it is in the best interest of all Floridians to give our children a world-class education that fully prepares them for college and/or a career in the 21st century.” Without common standards, how will that happen? How would we even know? The founding principle of Common Core was simple: Here is what an American student graduating from any high school should know and be able to do to be competitive in the global economy and to be a productive citizen. A high school diploma would be proof of that achievement.

Sadly, it failed miserably. A diploma from a Mississippi school means something very different than one from Massachusetts or Florida. This is little help to students or the colleges looking to admit them or the employers trying to hire them.

When Common Core began, Florida was at the forefront, and every state but Texas and Alaska took part. It was not the federal government that dictated standards but rather the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers who led the way. They recognized that for too long, American education had suffered from a piecemeal approach.

But then the Common Core lost its way. The original idea was to set a high bar but leave it to the discretion of states and school districts how to clear it. In other words, students would have to pass tests on crucial topics before graduating from high school, but how to teach those topics would be left to local control. That didn’t happen. Instead, teachers were told not just what students should know but were directed specifically how they should teach. A student might not only have to answer a math problem correctly but demonstrate the specific, approved way that she arrived at the solution. Then, standardized tests piled upon standardized tests. Teachers lost autonomy and instruction time, and over-tested students lost time to learn.

In the end, everyone lost. But the answer is not to throw out standards that would allow comparisons of high school competence across America. It is for states to agree on robust standards, then let individual teachers have the freedom on how to teach to reach them. Models for this already exist, both in Advanced Placement courses (in which Florida is a successful leader) and in the International Baccalaureate programs, which have the same standards for a diploma across the world. In the meantime, we have a system where the grade-point averages of students in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are computed differently, so colleges have to come up with their own methods of comparing applicants just from the Tampa Bay area. In fact, it’s easier to compare IB students across the counties than traditional students. That’s crazy, and it helps no one.

Florida should not hide in a pretend Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, even if few of them really are. The right answer is for states to agree on rigorous national standards and then let individual teachers run their own classrooms. In a world in which a Florida student might have to compete with a student from India as well as Indiana or China as well as California, anything less hurts the teenagers who are our future.