Why have public schools anyway? We’ve all heard the answer: Public schools are the engine of our economy, the cornerstone of our democracy, and the avenue for individuals to achieve their dreams.
This list of goals sounds like mere rhetoric, but these three goals are worth thinking about. The first observation worth making about these three goals is that we don’t get to choose; we need to do all three. Second, though reformers like to emphasize the ways that these three purposes overlap, these three purposes also pull us in different directions. This means that when educators start to implement something, they are always doing a balancing act. That’s okay, and in fact puts education in the mainstream in this nation, which has found great strength in finding ways to balance opposing forces. But it’s never easy, and it might help if we admitted it.
It is important to keep both the three goals – economy, democracy, and individual dreams – and the balancing act in mind as we begin serious work on the Common Core standards. The primary impetus behind the Common Core is the first of the three goals: public education as the engine of the economy. The urgency behind the Common Core comes from concerns about global competitiveness. The hope is that by having internationally benchmarked standards that are “higher, clearer, fewer” we can energize the economy and avoid being left behind by nations like China and India. This is a legitimate goal, but it is only one of three. A failure to acknowledge this will cause the Common Core to fail. Let’s think about how this can happen, what implementers need to do to avoid it, and how policymakers can help.
Today this nation is facing two challenges that are every bit as important as the economic one. The challenges to our democracy, goal two, in the 21st century are many. Citizens are increasingly distracted and sometimes it seems that civic engagement itself is out of fashion. Public schools have traditionally had an important role to play in teaching and giving students a chance to model the idea of citizenship. And, this nation is facing a flood of immigration, legal as well as illegal. People are headed to this country from all over the world, bringing a variety of skills, hopes, and dreams but also their own languages and cultures. This nation has welcomed floods of immigrants before. We know how, and it makes us a stronger, better place to live. But schools must be there to help build the common language, culture, and values that hold us together. All in all, schools are a key part of what make us a nation. Can the Common Core State Standards help with this goal Yes. Will they automatically do so? No.
The other challenge that faces us today is about goal three, the chance for individuals to achieve their dreams. While we think of opportunity as central to our national identity, statistics suggest that the chance to get ahead is scarcer these days than ever before. This is what parents care most about, and schools cannot neglect the goal that is most central to their key customers.
For our strongest students, the Common Core State Standards provide a roadmap to college and careers and therefore hold out the promise of upward mobility. But for many other students, higher standards and a tougher, better test won’t help but instead will increase these students’ need for additional support. This can take the form of differentiated instruction in the classroom, extended learning time, access to one-on-one or small-group tutoring or new online tools. There are many solutions to this problem, but none is free. For these struggling students, the Common Core will help them if and only if we are willing to make the investment in these additional supports as well as in the standards themselves. In a world of scarce resources, such investments can’t be taken for granted.
So, can the Common Core State Standards enhance global competitiveness, build common language, culture, values, and also provide more kids with access to college and a career? Maybe, but only if we keep all three goals in mind and don’t expect teachers to do a perfect job of meeting any single goal.
This last element is how policymakers can help. If state policy replicates the high-stakes accountability approach that was central to state policy over the last decade, if policymakers do their best to put as much pressure as possible on schools to produce high test scores on a test that is both substantially different and substantially harder, they run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance between the three goals that is the strength of our public school system.
Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.