Common Core lessons aim to close persistent achievement gap

Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource TodayThe state doesn’t currently collect statewide surveys measuring school climate and student engagement. Parents and advocacy groups would like it to and use the results as part of a school accountability system. Editor’s note: Proponents of the Common Core State Standards – the most ambitious education reform in decades – say the standards will help close the nation’s achievement gap. Just how is that supposed to happen, and how likely is success?
Michelle Rodriguez, assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana School District, is convinced that the new Common Core State Standards can help narrow California’s achievement gap. For all too many decades, that troubling disparity has been marked by lower test scores and higher dropout rates for African-American, Latino and low-income students, and students who are still learning English.
To explain her faith in the standards’ potential, Rodriguez pointed to a scene she witnessed recently in a 4th-grade math class in her district, where nearly nine out of 10 of the roughly 57,000 students are English learners, and a similar share come from low-income families.
A boy raised his hand to give the answer to a multiplication problem. The answer was correct, but the teacher wanted more.
“Explain your thinking,” she told the student.
“I just know it!” the boy protested.
“In past years, the teacher might have said ‘Good job!’ and left it at that,” Rodriguez said. “But this time, she told the boy to meet with his ‘collaboration team’ of three other students. The other kids were asking, ‘Are you sure? How do you know it?’ and it turned out he had the right answer for the wrong reason. They kept talking, and in less than five minutes this boy, who is still learning English, was not only able to grasp the concept, but explain it to the rest of the class.”
For Rodriguez and other champions of the new standards, the scene reveals three specific ways the Common Core can help all students, but particularly those who need extra support. Children are facing more challenging tasks. They’re also spending more time collaborating and communicating with their fellow students and teachers. And they’re routinely obliged to persevere.
In all these ways, say these proponents, classroom expectations for K-12 students are becoming more similar to the sorts of demands they’ll face in college and their careers – a change that holds great promise of improving children’s futures.
“These standards are going to make all of our children more competitive, both in college and careers,” Rodriguez said.
Her confidence is all the more striking given that some advocacy groups, including Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based organization focused on closing the achievement gap, have expressed concern that the Common Core’s more challenging requirements actually risk widening the gap, absent a great deal of extra support. Yet Rodriguez and other proponents contend that the new, higher standards are precisely what these students need most.
“Isn’t it better for them to know ahead of time that this is what’s going to be expected of them later?” Rodriguez asked, referring to the explicit Common Core goal of preparing students for college and careers.
Leading civil rights groups, such as the NAACP and MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, share Rodriguez’s hopeful outlook. For the first time, say these advocates, the Common Core standards expect every high school senior – not just those whose parents can afford extra tutoring – to be genuinely prepared to succeed in college or in other career pathways. Those pathways can include a vocational training program, the job market itself, or enlisting in the military. The goal is to proceed without having to take costly remedial courses after high school.
The standards “are designed to promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the U.S. and abroad,” said a 2013 resolution by the NAACP.
Expressing similar sentiments, MALDEF president Thomas Saenz has noted: “Because Latinos are an important and growing proportion of the public school population, our community has a particular interest in achieving swift and appropriate implementation of the Common Core Standards.”
Jason Zimba, a lead author of the Common Core mathematics standards and a founder of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the new benchmarks, said the Common Core for the first time provides a “map” that makes it “explicit to everyone what a solid education looks like.” In an interview with EdSource, Zimba added: “The affluent have always known the terms of the deal – what math you should learn, that you should be learning algebra, that you have to have an academic component to your learning. But… these things need to be revealed to everyone, and that’s part of the goal of the standards.”
It’s no secret that, on average, students who come from low-income families, who are African-Americans or Latinos, who lack English fluency or who have learning disabilities lag behind their peers in U.S. classrooms. Repeated attempts at reform over the years have done little to significantly narrow these achievement gaps, which show up in high school dropout rates and in test scores.
California’s graduation rate for white students in 2013 was 87.7 percent. In contrast, and despite some recent improvements, the rate for Latinos is 75.7 percent, and for African-Americans, just 68.1 percent. On the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP – a regularly administered national standardized test often referred to as “the nation’s report card” – the gap in 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for Latinos and blacks remains stubbornly large, at more than 20 points lower than for whites in both subjects and grades.
Disparities evident in elementary school hit home when high school graduates enroll in college or look for work. Nationally, roughly half of incoming freshmen at community colleges have to take remedial courses that don’t offer credit. Meanwhile, many employers have been complaining for years that their new hires among high school graduates lack the skills they need to do well at their jobs. Some, they say, lack basic English fluency and math skills, while many also lack the ability to think critically and collaborate.
“The future U.S. workforce is here – and it is woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace,” concluded a major 2006 survey of more than 400 employers throughout the nation.
The Common Core standards aim to better prepare students with higher and clearer expectations that begin in kindergarten.
As the 4th-grader in Santa Ana discovered, the new standards require that students not only get the right answers to problems but be able to explain how they reached their conclusions. Of particular potential help to English learners is a greater focus in all classes on communication and collaboration, obliging all students to speak and listen much more during the day, which can help build both their vocabularies and their stamina. Moreover, students are expected in all subjects to read more non-fiction, including technical documents, and to practice more analytical, argument-based writing and speaking, all of which is more compatible with what they’d be expected to do in college and on the job.
In an oft-quoted comment justifying a shift to more professional and less personal writing in school, David Coleman, a principal author of the standards and now president of the College Board, which administers the SAT and other standardized tests, has said that an employer would never tell an employee, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”
“It’s a heavy lift, but a necessary one, and not too much to ask,” said Jeannette LaFors, director of Equity Initiatives at Education Trust-West.
An especially useful change with the new standards, say LaFors and others, is that they emphasize perseverance. “There’s a focus on productive struggle that we didn’t see in previous standards,” LaFors said. “Too often when kids struggle, they just give up and say ‘I’m stupid.’ But you actually see the word ‘persevere’ written into these standards. We’re encouraging students to use their mistakes as a critical part of their learning.”
LaFors, a former administrator at Envision Schools, a network of small, academically rigorous urban charter schools, said low-achievers often fall into one of two categories: capable but unmotivated kids who have “skills without will” and others who have more will to learn but who lag behind in developing their skills. Ideally, the new standards will help both of these groups, she said; they’re intended to engage the bored kids by giving them more active roles in the classroom, while providing less-skilled students more opportunities to catch up.
“The Common Core allows teachers to spend more time with students on fewer concepts, helping them grapple with and understand those concepts from various vantage points,” LaFors said. “With the previous standards, if you didn’t get something on the first fly-by, the class moved on and left you behind. But with the Common Core, you’re going deeper, which should give the previous low-achievers a better shot as concepts are introduced and re-introduced.”
Even as the Common Core offers hope of greater education equity, LaFors and others who are closely watching the transition to the new standards say that promise will only be fulfilled if school districts provide considerable additional support to English learners, in particular, to ensure that they benefit from the new approach.
“We know our students need additional support to meet the higher expectations, and we don’t want to change those expectations,” said Santa Ana’s assistant superintendent Rodriguez.
In other words, while the Common Core may provide the “map,” it’s up to the school districts to undertake the journey to make sure the new standards fulfill their promise for students whose futures depend on them.
Educators such as Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson recognize that the Common Core is only a piece of the puzzle of narrowing California’s achievement gap. In an interview with EdSource last fall, he warned that truly meaningful reform must also include additional support to teachers and school leaders, as well as social-emotional programs that address some of the issues that children face in their homes and neighborhoods.
“In and of itself, the Common Core isn’t going to be enough,” Wilson warned, even as he added that the Common Core is “a significant piece of the puzzle because what it is really talking about is putting all young people on the trajectory to be college- and career-ready. So it’s important. It’s about raising standards.”
Katherine Ellison covers the Common Core for EdSource.
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