Shane Cockrell’s father was in the military, and the family moved a lot when he was growing up. Cockrell specifically recalls starting middle school in Connecticut, and then enrolling in a middle school in South Carolina when the family moved. The decline in standards was shocking.
“My mom was so appalled by the difference that she ended up pulling me out of public school,” Cockrell recalls. Now, Cockrell is himself a former member of the military with a family, and he can understand his mother’s frustration. His son was in an excellent accelerated program in Springfield, Mo., but when the family moved to Oklahoma, the “accelerated program” Cockrell had researched turned out to consist of occasional library visits.
“I’m angry with myself because I felt like I did him a disservice by moving,” Cockrell said. His son is bored, and his grades have slipped.
It makes no sense that standards for students vary dramatically from state to state. NPR recently reported that a fourth-grader in Arkansas might be rated “proficient” on his state test but could be deemed failing if he lived in Massachusetts. In 2009, 90 percent of Tennessee fourth-graders were on track in reading, according to the state’s assessment. But only 28 percent of them were up to muster on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, which is widely considered the most reliable and rigorous national assessment of student learning.
In addition to being bad for students, the current hodgepodge of academic standards prevents teachers from collaborating across state lines, according to Seria Walton, a former Teacher of the Year in Lansing, Mich. “I was on a leadership team with teachers from a variety of different states, and as we looked at each other’s standards, we realized there was no continuity. They were vastly different. We couldn’t collaborate on lesson plans because no one was teaching the same thing.”
Walton also had to completely change all of her lesson plans when she moved to Indiana from Michigan. “I had to reinvent the wheel for what to do with the kids,” she said, “and there were so many Indiana standards, it was impossible to teach anything in depth.”
The Common Core State Standards—clear and high standards for what every child in the United States should know by the end of each grade—are a practical and effective solution for a system that now dooms some students to learn far less than their peers who happen to live in other states. They benefit students in states with weak academic standards. They benefit teachers who want to access and share the best possible lesson plans. They benefit parents who have a right to know that an “A” in school or a “proficient” on the state test actually means their child is on track. They benefit military families who often move across state boundaries. They benefit colleges and employers, who for the first time will know that a high-school graduate from Arizona is as prepared as one from New York when it comes to the critical reading, critical reasoning, and foundational math skills necessary for college and career success. They benefit college-aged students, many of whom now take costly remedial classes (without earning college credit) because their previous schooling didn’t prepare them for higher education.
People tend to support the Common Core State Standards once they understand them. Last month, in a poll of likely voters conducted by Stand for Children Oklahoma, 78 percent of respondents expressed support for standards that put all students on the path to high-school and college graduation.
Here’s how Shane Cockrell, who wasn’t even familiar with the new common standards, made the case: “Shared standards will mean parents who travel state to state know exactly what to expect out of schools in a new state. And, raising standards everywhere makes it more feasible for kids in poor areas to know they have a fighting chance.”
“Isn’t that just common sense?” Cockrell asked.
Jonah Edelman (@JonahEdelman) is co-founder and CEO of Stand for Children.