The Common Core Curriculum — a national attempt to standardize school curriculum from Kindergarten through grade twelve — is a hot topic on national media circuits these days. When it comes to education, it can be difficult to glean the facts from the political commentary, so I invited Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews onto my radio show to clarify things for us. Mr. Mathews has been on staff at the Post for 43 years and is the author of 8 books, including Work Hard: Be Nice, which traces the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network.
Mr. Mathews started off our conversation by stating that American schools have generally gotten better over the course of history. There are more people attending and succeeding in college than ever before; and the standard of living, like education levels, is at an all-time high. The problem is that our progress has plateaud. A new population of low-income students are entering our schools without demonstrating improvement. Mr. Mathews emphasized that the data is exceedingly clear: students from low-income families are just as smart as kids from wealthy suburbs. So why are they not succeeding, and how do we raise their achievement levels?
Mr. Mathews cited certain cultural forces as the main obstacle. There are some recent immigrant communities—Chinese and Vietnamese, for example—whose children rise quickly in school because their culture instills in them a burning desire to do well. In the African American community, which has experienced many generations of poverty, public school has not raised the standard of living, so the culture perpetuates an attitude that says: “I’m not going to put any effort into school.” Parents are too busy trying to make ends meet to support their children’s educational pursuits, and many would not know how to give that support anyway, since they themselves are not educated. According to Mr. Mathews, the KIPP charter school network has been the most successful in overcoming this complex, cultural trend. It raises kids at 20-30% efficiency rates up to 60-80%, the level of affluent suburbs. KIPP schools have extremely high expectations; as soon as students arrive, they are bombarded with the message: “You are going to college.” The school day is 9 hours long, which increases classroom time by 50% and allows teachers time to communicate about individual student progress. Perhaps most importantly, in Mr. Mathew’s opinion, KIPP principals have the power to hire and fire teachers, so they can build effective teams. If someone is not up to par, they are gone in a few months; in a regular public school, a poorly performing teacher takes 2-3 years to remove.
I asked Mr. Mathews about the public vs. charter school controversy. Aren’t some people against charter schools because they take funds away from public schools? Mr. Mathews says that is complete nonsense! Charter schools are public schools, and if a child switches from public to charter, then the public dollars follow that child: they are receiving the same free education from the state either way. There is a controversy over for-profit charters, but that is a different story.
Okay, so how does the Common Core Curriculum fit into this conversation? According to the data, says Mr. Mathews, new standards do not raise achievement levels. Higher standards of living, proficient teachers, and a better learning culture raise achievement levels. But, says Mr. Mathews, that doesn’t mean they won’t work. He knows many excellent teachers that support the new standards, and he trusts them. That seemed to be the bottom line for Mr. Mathews: we need excellent teachers, and we need to support them. Mr. Mathews interviewed thousands of excellent teachers and found that they are treated no differently than mediocre ones. This is a huge problem. We need to fix our flawed leadership structure so that it attracts and supports excellent teachers. We can all address this problem by shifting the cultural perspective of the profession. Let’s respect and support the teachers that do so much for our children! Thank a teacher today!