The first Republican-sanctioned presidential debate earlier this month offered some telling signs about conservatives’ general attitude toward education reform. In response to the first and only question put to the forum on the issue, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made clear that education must be about local control and academic expectations that set students up to succeed.
“I’m for higher standards, measured in an intellectually honest way,” Bush said. “I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in the creation of standards, directly or indirectly.” Rubio articulated the same sentiment, adding, “[Reform] should happen at the state and local level. That is where educational policy belongs.”
Those are principles any conservative voter can support. They’re also the foundation of the Common Core State Standards. And while the term “Common Core” may still needle some critics who would like to return to the old model of education -- even though we know it wasn’t working -- the conversation finally seems to be moving past semantics to focus on rigorous, comparable college- and career-ready education standards.
That may be because after two national elections in which opponents avowed the Common Core would be a litmus test for conservatives, voters demonstrated they support higher classroom expectations. Or it may be that the standards are showing early success in states like Kentucky and Tennessee, which have achieved steady, sizeable gains after implementing the tougher standards.
Whatever the case, most leaders are looking past the activists that still use the Common Core as a rallying cry and embracing the need for education standards that adequately prepare our students. This year no state legislatures passed legislation to repeal their Common Core standards, despite nearly 50 bills nationwide aimed at doing so. Instead, three states -- Louisiana, Tennessee and New Jersey -- launched reviews to hone and build on the standards further. And this is exactly what they were designed to do.
Considering the turmoil stirred by opponents less than a year ago, that’s pretty impressive – and a real indication that the framework laid by the Common Core is here to stay, even as states mold it and make it their own. That’s what we did in Arizona when I was governor. We reviewed and tweaked the standards to make sure they met our students’ needs, and we rebranded them to put on Arizona’s stamp ownership.
The next step toward improving student performance will come this fall when states release results from the first year of tests aligned to higher standards. This, too, is an area where Republicans should be able to agree. School accountability has long been a cause championed by conservatives, and these new assessments will better ensure schools are meeting their responsibility of helping students achieve higher levels.
Yet, there will no doubt be opposition, likely from the same naysayers fighting to impede the transition to rigorous education standards. They will argue scores are lower, a sure sign that the tests are too hard or designed to set students up to fail. Not only does that line of reasoning mischaracterize the data, it ignores the purpose of raising expectations in our classrooms and suggests that somehow our kids can’t handle being held to a high level. I fundamentally disagree.
The assessments that were given for the first time in most states this spring represent a necessary step to provide parents and teachers with better information about how well students are really doing. For too long we haven’t had that. An analysis by an education advocacy group earlier this year found most states systematically inflated proficiency rates – more than half to 30 points or more than the true rate identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which is considered the definitive yardstick.
Achieve, the organization responsible for the report, aptly labeled these discrepancies the “Honesty Gap.” Not only were states telling parents their child was on track to move on to higher level material when, in fact, they might not be, this reality was masking performance issues, giving teachers no way of identifying and addressing them.
New high-quality assessments rolled out by states this spring are tougher. Unlike old bubble tests, they require students demonstrate their understanding of a subject. As a result, fewer students will likely obtain top scores. That doesn’t mean our kids are any less smart, or our teachers any less capable. It simply means we are raising the bar to the level students need to succeed in a competitive environment. As we do so, students – with support from educators – will start to meet and exceed those expectations.
Implementation of higher education standards has been a difficult task, but one that is succeeding thanks to the hard work of educators and policymakers with the courage to stand firm in their conviction. Implementation of meaningful student assessments will be challenging as well. But it is a necessary step to ensure our students are empowered to meet their full potential.
Jan Brewer served as governor of Arizona from 2009 to 2015. She was recently named a senior adviser to the Collaborative for Student Success, an organization that supports the state-led effort to implement the Common Core.