Op-Ed: Common Core guidelines make sense

The following op-ed was published on Sept. 21, 2014, by the Monterey Herald.

After serving for two years as assistant secretary for higher education in the Department of Education, I can attest to the incredible complexity of our nation’s educational enterprise.

It stands to reason that significantly reforming education nationwide will be complex as well. So it is with the Common Core reforms. However, we cannot let the difficulty -- or the fog of confusion being stirred up by opponents of this effort – push us off course. The task is too important, for our students and for our nation’s future.

California schools have begun basing their instruction on the Common Core standards. Our state is participating in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is developing assessment tests in math and language proficiency based on the Common Core.

Of course, Common Core has become a political hot-button issue in recent months, as opponents of the standards have sought to portray them as a federal power grab, undermining local control. Several states have withdrawn from Common Core as a result.

Those charges are misguided. Common Core was developed in 2009 by a bipartisan coalition, including the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officials. The groups were responding to the very real concerns that too many students were making it through our K-12 system without the skills and knowledge required to succeed in college and in the job market.

Common Core sets guidelines for what students at each level need to know and establishes a test to measure how they are doing. School districts still adopt their own strategies for helping their students reach these standards.

The standards emphasize the critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, writing, and research skills that will be vital to students, both in colleges and universities and in future workplaces.

For teachers, the standards should open up the possibility of far richer classroom discussions and dialogues as they help students develop these higher-order skills.

National standards, rather than various guidelines from state-to-state or community-to-community, reflect the approach taken by nations worldwide, many of which are raising their educational level beyond that of the United States. We need to reverse that trend.

In an increasingly international economy, it makes no sense to hold students in one state to a different standard than another.

It is also important to point out that Common Core represents a united strategy by our entire educational system. For too long, different segments of that system have not always been on the same page. While we recognize our interdependence, it is often seems easiest for us to work within our own silos.

So it is worth noting that, in August, leaders of the four branches of California's public and private higher education establishment submitted a letter to the state board of education proclaiming their support of the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced tests.

The letter, signed by California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White; University of California President Janet Napolitano; Brice W. Harris, the chancellor of California's community college system; and Kristen F. Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, said, in part:

"We believe California's implementation of the Common Core standards and aligned assessments has the potential to dramatically improve college readiness and help close the preparation gap that exists for California students.”

The Education Policy Improvement Center asked 1,800 faculty members who teach introductory courses in an array of disciplines to review the standards and decide whether they describe the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in their courses. More than 80 percent of faculty agreed that the standards are an accurate reflection of the knowledge and skills needed for success in introductory college courses.

Teacher preparation programs, including the program in our College of Education at CSUMB, are changing to reflect the standards.

At Cal State Monterey Bay, we are committed to working collaboratively with local schools to help improve student performance. We want more of our young people to graduate from high school with the academic tools they will need to pursue a college degree.

The Common Core standards represent a critical step toward that important goal.