Opinion, POLITICO, February 20, 2014 -
You may not have heard of Common Core, but it’s the most controversial two words in the American education system right now.
Common Core is the shorthand for a requirement that, beginning as early as possible in elementary school and continuing throughout high school, students be exposed to, and become comfortable with, a college-prep set of skills. These skills—especially in mathematics and English—will provide a foundation for students to go in any career direction.
This is so transparently a good thing that it’s hard to figure out why anyone would be opposed. That’s especially true for conservatives, who have long believed our education system is underperforming; that student progress needs to be measured; and that teachers and school superintendents should be accountable for better outcomes in the classroom.
Conservatives are instinctively pro-standard. And yet the latest round of opposition to Common Core comes primarily from the right. What gives?
As with so many other major initiatives, those who disagree with any portion of the idea want to scrap the whole thing. Why, they ask, does a 10th grader interested in auto mechanics need to know whether it was David Copperfield or Oliver Twist who asked for more porridge? (Hint: It was Oliver.) Why does that same student need to pass Algebra II to achieve proficiency in setting the timing on a Tesla “S” model electric car? (Hint: Electric cars don’t have timing issues.)
Not every high-school student needs to go to a traditional four-year college. But, those who claim we are wasting the time of students who are likely to get on a vocational instead of an academic track are settling for low expectations at a time when we should be setting high expectations.
What if, instead, we made the case that students who were either pushed into a vocational lane or self-selected for it, were being deprived of skills they may need later in life? What if they want to progress beyond being an hourly worker to being the manager of a business, or perhaps owning his or her own business?
When we look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment numbers on the first Friday of every month, we are treated to an amazing graph
. That graph shows a straight line in employment from someone who did not finish high school to someone with a professional degree. The line goes up from no high-school diploma through a two-year community college associate’s degree to some four-year college to a college degree through an advanced degree to being a doctor or a lawyer.
That same straight line – in reverse – is seen in employability. No high-school diploma? The unemployment rate is 12.4 percent. Professional degree? The unemployment rate is 2.1 percent.
Not all of the value of a good foundational education translates to income. A great deal of the value is reflected in the way former students perceive themselves. Recently, the Pew organization released a study
that showed, among other measures, that fully 89 percent of employed respondents between the ages of 25-32 who had an associate degree, some college or a bachelor’s degree felt “their education was ‘very useful’ in preparing them for their career.”
We’re not talking about some 60-year-olds who walked up hill both ways when they were young. These are the people who are in the thick of an ever-more challenging career competition.
If every high-school student in the country were able to demonstrate a basic capacity for the Common Core, they could—and should—then feel free to decide what they want to do post-high school. Think about how much more valuable a two-year course in a vocational environment would be if the first year didn’t have to focus on improving basic reading, writing, math and reasoning skills. Those are the skills we should be teaching in high school so the post-secondary environment, whether vocational or academic, can be that much more valuable to the students and to our economy.
Those who oppose Common Core because it’s a “nationalized” model that infringes on “local control” couldn’t be more wrong. Common Core started with the states; has vast bipartisan support from governors of both parties; and has the stamp of approval from credible conservatives, ranging from Jeb Bush to Bill Bennett to any number of other serious people. And there’s a reason for this: Standards and accountability are conservative values that we have promoted for decades!
We are not going to solve our long-term unemployment problems next week, nor in the midterms nor with the election of 2016. It will take a generation of improving the educational experience of a vast number of young Americans.
The Common Core is a very powerful concept. We should look for ways to make it work better for more students, rather than looking for ways to defeat it.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rich Galen is a Republican strategist.