Column: Stand up for the Common Core

Published June 21, 2013

Common Core Standards have been the subject of a lot of misinformation in the past few months: They will cost money we don't have; they will force students to read insulation manuals in English class; they represent a federal takeover of schools.

Underlying many of the criticisms is a sense that these standards — which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia — are so different and difficult that many students won't be able to meet them. American kids, particularly those who live in poverty, can't meet current standards, the worry goes; higher standards will make it that much more difficult for them to make it through school and graduate.

With those arguments as a backdrop, I have been fascinated by enthusiasm for Common Core Standards among educators in successful high-poverty and high-minority schools. Convinced that the new standards represent a ladder their students can use to climb out of poverty and isolation, these educators are, in the words of one, "leaping to Common Core Standards."

A little background: For the better part of a decade, I have been visiting high-poverty and high-minority schools that perform well — really well — on state tests. Mostly, they perform about as well as middle-class white schools, and sometimes they are at the top of their states.

Successful by current measures — I call them "It's Being Done Schools" — one could easily imagine educators in these schools resisting changes that could potentially make them look bad, at least in the short term while they adjust.

But I have found exactly the opposite.

Take, for example, Gayla Morphew, who teaches at DeQueen Elementary School, one of the top-performing schools in Arkansas. DeQueen is hours from Little Rock and an hour north of Texarkana. Most of the school's parents work the day or night shift killing, cleaning and plucking chickens in nearby processing plants, and most are recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

In other words, it is a poor town with few resources. But the educators at DeQueen Elementary are determined to prepare their students to make their way in the world. "We want them to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities out there," says Morphew, who is the school's literacy facilitator. Common Core Standards, she says, are "clear and concise and good for kids."

She is particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity the new standards provide to help students make the connection between facts and ideas. "The most powerful question is, 'What do you think of this?' " she said. "And the next most powerful question is, 'Why?' We want our kids to be arguers."

She is a passionate advocate for the idea that her students — poor as they may be — can learn their way into a better life, and that Common Core Standards will help teachers help them do just that.

Here's another example: Pass Christian High School in Pass Christian, Miss. You may remember Pass Christian as one of the towns devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. The school building has a sign 16 feet above the ground floor, marking the high water mark and reminding everyone of the year school had to be held in trailers on the grounds of the only elementary school in the district that hadn't been destroyed.

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Pass Christian isn't Mississippi's poorest town — its economy is bolstered by the nearby casinos and Gulf Coast industry. But it isn't wealthy by any means — more than half the students at Pass Christian High School meet the qualifications for federally subsidized free and reduced-price meals. Years ago, it was low-performing and had a tough-guy reputation among neighboring schools.

Today, however, Pass Christian is one of the highest achieving high schools in the state, graduating higher percentages of students — both black and white — than the state as a whole. This year, likely because so many students took a college-preparatory curriculum and Advanced Placement exams, the 120 students in the graduating class attracted more than $5 million in scholarship support for postsecondary education.

Educators at Pass Christian told me they began to improve once Mississippi adopted its state standards. "We looked at them and saw we could do it," said one. The district adopted "Committed to Excellence" as its motto, and set out to help all students meet the state's standards. "Committed to Mediocrity would have been so much easier," the principal, Meredith Bang, told me, laughing ruefully.

But that commitment to excellence is the reason Pass Christian has embraced the more rigorous Common Core Standards, beginning work on incorporating them even before the state required it.

Says math teacher James Phillips: "We have a lot of students who are graduating without being ready for college at this point." Common Core Standards, he said, "are going to put us on an even playing field with the rest of the states in the United States."

These are just two examples of many I could cite of educators in schools that are very successful under current standards who see Common Core Standards as the next rung on the climb toward excellence.

As Bang says, commitment to mediocrity would be easier — but our children, our schools and our nation need and deserve so much more.

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at the Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization that works to improve academic achievement for all children. She is the author of "It's Being Done and How It's Being Done," and, with Christina Theokas, "Getting It Done."

© 2013 Education Trust