Common Core, High Expectations for All, and Addressing the Achievement Gap

Changes to classroom instruction happening under Common Core State Standards obstruct “students’ development of long-term working memory,” impairing deeper learning, claims Emmett Tyrrell, writing in The American Spectator. “Common Core’s progressive pedagogy is especially harmful to disadvantaged students,” the piece argues. “Common Core math locks students into a slowed-down progression that will leave them unprepared for higher education… The result? An expanding achievement gap.”

Tyrrell points to a recent Hechinger Report article, which says, in part, “It’s clear that raising standards was not enough to help all learners.”

It’s unfair to suggest the Common Core is responsible for academic achievement gaps. It is also unfair to expect Common Core to be the silver bullet that will close the achievement gap.  High, consistent learning goals ensure all students are held to expectations designed to fully prepare them for college and careers, which is an important first step to begin improving student outcomes.

To that end, the Hechinger Report article acknowledges Common Core State Standards have helped to raise classroom expectations. The Common Core has “ramped up academic expectations,” the article notes, and the standards are “tougher” and require a “deeper level of inquiry.”

Evidence from states supports that Common Core State Standards are improving proficiency standards. An analysis by Achieve this year finds 26 states significantly closed discrepancies between state-reported proficiency rates and those identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Similarly, a Harvard University study concludes, “Overall, 36 states have strengthened their [proficiency] standards since 2013, while just 5 have loosened them, and 7 have left their standards essentially unchanged. In short, the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”

“[States] should really be commended for starting to be more transparent with parents and educators about how their kids are doing,” explains Sandra Boyd, chief operating officer for Achieve. “It really is the first step in improving outcomes.”

Tyrrell suggests Common Core State Standards locks students into a “slowed-down progression that will leave them unprepared for higher education”— a dig at the standards’ call for students to participate in “general” math classes in eighth grade that cover algebra, geometry and statistics.

However, as we have said before, that shift doesn’t mean students are learning in any less. In fact, by introducing student to fundamental math concepts—including algebra—earlier, the shift helps students develop stronger building blocks, which better prepare them for high-level math content.

Contrary to Tyrrell’s claim, that transition will likely help students of all backgrounds build a better understanding in math. As a Los Angeles Times article explains, the shift “might help to solve a different problem: the segregation that happens inside schools and between classrooms, when black and Latino students are kept out of high-level classes.”

One of the strengths of the Common Core is that the standards build strong foundations of the skills students need to succeed at higher levels beginning in early grades. As more students at early levels begin to learn through the standards, it is likely achievement will begin to increase across all demographics.

Policymakers should resist the temptation to declare that the Common Core will not help to close achievement gaps. Instead, they should provide support to teachers and parents to help ensure all students are able to achieve to these new, higher academic expectations.