This piece was written exclusively for Human Events by Governor Jeb Bush.
I recently finished a fascinating new book by journalist Amanda Ripley called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. The comparisons in the book between American schools and those in higher performing countries were jarring, but not a wake-up call. We???ve had those for years, going back to Sputnik and then A Nation at Risk and now to continued poor performance on international tests ??? the most recent showing American students rank 14th in the world in English and 25th in math. Rather, what was fascinating about the book was the light it shed on the reasons for the growing international achievement gap ??? dramatically different academic cultures.
Right now in South Korea, parents labor at second jobs to save for ???hagwagons??? ??? rigorous tutoring centers where students spend hours studying after their normal school day is over ??? to ensure their child has the best chance possible to be accepted to a top university. In Finland, teachers are selected from the best and brightest the nation has to offer, and paid as such. The results of recruiting and rewarding excellent educators speak for themselves. In Poland, student achievement skyrocketed in the short period between 2000 and 2006 because the nation???s new leaders radically dismantled and reinvented its school system as opposed to tinkering around the edges of reform.
As America???s top competitors lengthen their leads over other countries, the U.S. is mired in a debate over whether or not the federal government had any involvement in the Common Core State Standards ??? a state-driven initiative to raise minimum reading and math expectations in kindergarten through twelfth grades. That???s right ??? policymakers across the nation have spent hours upon hours of debate on whether or not we should expect a child to understand the components of a sentence, such as identifying a noun or verb, by the end of the third grade.
The old standards in the vast majority of states do not stand up to the challenges of a 21st century economy. Common Core State Standards are the very least we must do to accelerate student learning. Instead of debating whether or not to go backward or stick with the higher standards adopted by 45 states, let???s contemplate going even farther.
Here are three paradigms that deserve more serious consideration than backing out of Common Core.
First off, the ultimate accountability in education is a parent. If unions released their grip on political levers, and parental choice was absolute, many public school reforms would be unnecessary because the desired results would be achieved through market forces. High-performing schools with the highest standards would attract students in droves, successful models would be replicated and failing schools would close.
Second, except for a rare few states, the status quo when it comes to standards is indefensible. If state leaders don???t like Common Core, they should embrace the challenge of raising their standards even higher. Common Core is merely the new floor of English and math requirements. But, states that opt out of Common Core must be intellectually honest and adopt assessments that allow for true comparability between states. I will be the first person in line to support a state???s right to adopt its own unique higher standards, as long as they are rigorously assessed and transparently reported.
A third option is the disruptive innovation of technology. A truly innovative system appeals to the highest expectations, not the lowest common denominator. An unrestrained embrace of technology, accompanied by the barrier-breaking reforms needed to unleash its potential, would fast-track student learning. This would mean upending how we fund schools today. No longer would we allocate per-pupil funding based on the completion of days in the classroom, but on whether or not a child has mastered the concepts of each course. We can only imagine what would happen if all students, regardless of zip code, could enroll in online programs that offer the same quality of teaching found in America???s storied Ivy League institutions.
This is not to say that Common Core standards do not deserve civil, informed debate. They do. I too fear federal overreach in education, but don???t believe a state-originated solution represents that. If President Obama proposed a national curriculum, I would join millions of Americans in defeating that dangerous, misguided approach. However, the current dialogue has been dragged down by unrelated, and in some cases manufactured, issues. Common Core standards don???t change data privacy policies, don???t harm parental choice and don???t dictate what books kids are assigned to read or how teachers teach.
Let???s be clear. A lot of the fight over Common Core standards is political. Meanwhile, in states across the country, we have huge swaths of the next generation of Americans who can’t do math or can’t read. Their expectations in their own lives are too low and they are destined to never realize their full God-given potential.
Americans have never been comfortable with mediocrity and we shouldn???t start now. We???re not going to be able to sustain this exceptional country unless we challenge every basic assumption on how we educate children. The key to reigniting social mobility and maintaining American competitiveness lies in giving every child access to the best education on the planet.
Let this, not politics, be at the heart of our dialogue.