Common Core + school choice can help low-income kids

The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick was unimpressed with my explanation for why I expect a growing embrace of Common Core State Standards by parents in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and the private schools that serve them – and why I think that’s a good thing. Jason is a school choice stalwart with whom I often agree, so let me try again.

Common Core standards in math and English/language arts are widely adopted, high quality and transparent. They’re obviously not a silver bullet. But if implemented properly, they can help parents and teachers better educate the low-income children that are part of the tax credit scholarship program.

The reason? Academic stability and continuity are essential for these kids. When they apply for scholarships, they tend to be the lowest-performing students in the lowest-performing district schools. They face extraordinary personal and academic obstacles. Within the scholarship program, they tend to change private schools frequently.

And all too often, here’s what happens: They’re told by their current school that they’re excelling in Algebra, for instance, only to be told when they transfer to another school that they’re a year behind. We hear this complaint regularly from parents. We know this discontinuity is an issue for them.

My guess is, as more of them learn about these new multi-state standards, they will increasingly choose private schools that are using them. This consumer pressure, in turn, will spur more private schools to adopt the common standards, so they can successfully compete in Florida’s robust school choice market.

Private schools that adopt all or parts of these new standards will not sacrifice independence, flexibility or creativity, although assessments do guide curriculum and instruction. There are many ways to teach students how to, for instance, understand and solve polynomial expressions employing multiplication and division. Students who move from a New Age Montessori school to a fundamentalist Southern Baptist school will still be exposed to different curricula, teaching methods and school cultures, even if both schools are using the same content and performance standards in math and reading.

It’s true Florida’s private schools are being pressured to adopt these new standards. But the pressure is coming from the market, not the state or federal government.

Twenty years ago almost every computer was using the Microsoft operating system, but that wasn’t caused by a government mandate. For practical reasons, most consumers decided using Microsoft software was in their best interest. Likewise, scholarship parents are embracing the common standards to address pragmatic concerns.

The voluntary alignment of the SAT and ACT to the new standards will also spur tax credit scholarship parents to pick private schools that are using them.

The ACT and SAT are currently based on content and performance standards, but these standards are not transparent or easily accessible. The curriculum in all K-12 schools loosely correlates to current ACT and SAT standards, but this degree of alignment varies from school to school. The education children receive at home and from their peer group greatly impacts their SAT and ACT scores, and this is why SAT and ACT scores are so highly correlated with family income.

That the ACT and SAT have both announced their intentions to base their content and performance standards on the new common standards is potentially a big plus for low-income students. It will make the ACT and SAT standards more transparent and help private school teachers better prepare scholarship students for them. This tighter alignment should also level the playing field a bit for students who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on ACT and SAT preparatory courses.

Florida’s private schools and their families are very diverse. I’m sure some schools and families will never embrace the new common standards; some may initially embrace them, then decide later to adopt another set of standards; and some may initially reject them only to implement them later.

Ultimately, parents will vote with their feet, and private schools will respond accordingly.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.

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