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Douglas: Common Core Context

There’s been a lot of controversy lately surrounding the Common Core State Standards for education. These are math and English skills that our students should be able to master at each grade level and are designed to position our graduates to compete more successfully with their counterparts around the world.

Unfortunately the Common Core is getting a bad rap in some quarters. Those who oppose the standards assert that it’s a Federalization of public education, long the domain of state and local governments, and that students will be subjected to even more examinations, with instructors forced to ‘teach to the tests.’

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law in 2001 and increased the Federal share of education funding from 1% to 13%. States were required to assess the Adequate Yearly Progress of each school; those who fell short were deemed ‘failing.’ The law also imposed a series of new tests.

As a response to this intrusion into education policy and administration, the nation’s governors decided to push back. In partnership with education commissioners from around the country, we developed the Common Core: uniform benchmarks for attainment by students at various grade levels that would be more rigorous in order to compete with other nations and also provide consistency from state to state. I chaired the National Governors Association when most states, including Vermont, adopted the Common Core. The standards were prepared by experts and then reviewed by a 27-member Validation Committee that included educators from around the world.

They were embraced by governors across the political spectrum: surely no one can believe that Haley Barbour, Jan Brewer, Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels would approve a Federal takeover of our schools!

These standards are not a curriculum: that will continue to be determined by state and local authorities. But here are some examples of what they do require: a kindergarten student should be able to count to 100 by 1’s and 10’s, recognize shapes and understand the difference between items of 2 dimensions vs. 3. Graduating high school seniors are expected to read critically, challenge an author’s perspective, conduct basic research and express themselves articulately, both orally and in writing.

America ranks roughly 30th in the world in test scores. 1/3 of our college students enroll in at least 1 remedial course and it’s higher among minorities and those at community colleges. 1/5 of our kids drop out of high school every year and many more leave college early. Our current system of public education just isn’t getting the job done and we pay more and more for it each time we receive a property tax bill.

I’ve heard it said that some of our teachers and schools are not yet prepared for these new standards. Fine: give them more time. But don’t reject the Common Core outright. It’s essential if we’re going to ensure that young Americans can compete with their contemporaries from other countries as they seek opportunities in a fast-paced global economy.

Jim Douglas, a former governor of Vermont, is an executive in residence at Middlebury College.
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