Over the last few months, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors have walked across a stage and received a diploma, an important moment that should be applauded.
Unfortunately, for many of those students, that diploma represents a false promise.
Recent data from the ACT, Inc. shows that only 25 percent of high school students who take the test are college-ready in all subject areas. In my home state of Tennessee, the situation is even bleaker. All students in Tennessee take the ACT test, but only 15 percent meet college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science. While more than 80 percent of our students say they want to attain at least a two-year degree, far too few are graduating with the skills they need to thrive after high school. Even some high school valedictorians are taking remedial courses in college. Too many students are completely unprepared for the future.
These hard truths are particularly worrisome because college readiness and a postsecondary credential are critical to longterm success. In 2010, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that almost two-thirds of all job openings in the United States by 2018 will require some form of postsecondary education — including technical certificates and Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and advanced degrees. Last year, the unemployment rate for Americans without a high school diploma was 14.1 percent. For those with a Bachelor’s degree, it was 4.9 percent.
Recognizing the need for more highly skilled graduates, 46 states and the District of Columbia have developed and adopted a common set of learning standards in English and math to better prepare their students for the future. These standards, called the Common Core State Standards, orient instruction around critical thinking and problem solving, requiring students to demonstrate a deep understanding of concepts and then apply them to new situations.
A student, for example, would no longer be required to simply memorize the formula for volume. Instead, they would need to use their conceptual understanding of volume to build different containers with the same volume. This approach differs from current standards and teaching practices, which too often place an emphasis on rote memorization over deeper understanding.
State leaders developed the Common Core standards to ensure that every student graduates high school prepared for college and the workforce, regardless of the state in which they live. Previously, each state had developed its own standards, leading to 50 different sets of expectations for student learning. The Common Core State Standards represent a way for states to work together to raise the rigor of what is taught in the classroom and ensure our students can compete with their peers.
Why are these new standards so important?
First, they are internationally-benchmarked and based on evidence and research about what it takes to be prepared for first-year college courses and entry level jobs leading to careers. I often hear from business leaders that they lack job applicants with the necessary critical thinking and teamwork skills needed to succeed in the workplace. These business leaders are hungry for the shift to the Common Core.
Second, the standards are clear, focused, and rigorous. In Tennessee, there are currently 113 different standards in third-grade math. When the state shifts to the Common Core standards, there will be 25. This change allows teachers time and flexibility to teach and explore critical topics, instead of having to cover hundreds of different standards to prepare students for a test. In addition, students will be exposed to fundamental concepts in earlier grades, building on those concepts each subsequent year.
Finally, the standards allow for economies of scale and the ability to share and compare across state lines. Teachers in states that have adopted the Common Core can share effective practices and materials and collaborate more easily. States are now working together to develop common assessments instead of having uneven measures of student readiness.
Contrary to the heated rhetoric of some voices, the Common Core does not represent a “federal takeover” of education. These standards are not a national curriculum, but a state-inspired and carefully crafted set of standards — of goals, really — to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a global economy. Casting the Common Core as anything else is not only irresponsible — it is just plain wrong.
Decisions in public education are best made at the state and local level, and they will continue to be in states that have adopted the Common Core standards. Governors and state commissioners of education led the development of the standards through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States and local school districts will continue to determine their own curriculum and textbooks.
The Common Core standards are not a silver bullet or a panacea. Our country faces significant challenges in improving public education and in ensuring that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and the workforce. But as high school students graduate across the country, we must remember the sobering truth that far too many of them graduate unprepared for the road ahead. And that is something we all have a responsibility to reverse.
Thankfully, when we expect more through higher academic standards, students achieve more. And our expectations are on the rise.