Written by Jasmine D. Gary
When I graduated high school, I was fourth in my class, tied with another classmate with a 3.9 GPA. I worked very hard to excel at my college preparation courses and even remember speaking with the guidance counselor about taking AP courses that could strengthen my college future applications. Unfortunately, the counselor told me that the school doesn’t provide AP courses because there wouldn’t be enough students to enroll in such high level courses. If I wanted to do higher level course work, there’s was an opportunity for dual courses with the local community college; however, that option conflicted with my out of school internship with the city’s prosecutor’s office (my future career at the time).
That conversation was pushed to the side for a few years and didn’t come to mind until my freshman year in college. I was accepted into a state university, my top selection. For the summer we read a Greek mythology and during my first year reading assignments included texts on democracy and government. Writing assignments required in-depth analysis of concepts that were unknown to me, and my classmates seemed to possess the ability to do this easily. These classmates related information to knowledge that they learned through their high school AP courses.
I felt slighted. If only I would’ve had the opportunity to challenge myself with AP courses, maybe the course work wouldn’t seem so difficult. I remember feeling defeated. If only I would’ve been exposed to more complex texts, vocabulary, and writing tasks in high school, maybe I wouldn’t have to work double time to catch up with my peers.
My high school provided “college preparation” courses for the students that considered themselves to be college-bound. In retrospect, that term “college preparation” was highly misleading. There was a huge gap between the rigor of the high school courses and the rigor expected of me as a college freshman. The school seemed to justify its inadequacy with reminders of limited resources necessary to provide more rigorous course options for students. This school, a predominately white suburban Midwest school, failed to provide course work that allowed its students to compete with other students within the state, let alone across the nation.
I carried this experience with me as an educator and former classroom teacher, as an intern with a large urban school district’s Chief Academic Officer, as a state Title I program administrator, as a mentor and even now, as an education policy writer/analyst for a national labor union. I not only lived through several examples of educational inequities, but I witnessed them all around me through the experiences of my older sibling, cousins, mentees and close friends. But the problem is that at the policy level, where I work, policymakers are blind to the impact of their policies on the ground level (classrooms, schools, districts). This creates policies that weren’t made for students and communities, but were created for political posturing and votes.
One area we’re seeing this now is with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).CCSS is a set of learning expectations for students in grades K-12 that were the result of decades of discussion and work by state education officials, governors, education organizations, and advocacy organizations. National standards have been on the map since the 1990s in discussions with education leaders, researchers, and policy makers on how to move our nation’s performance across several measures including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). As the nation was able to monitor and gauge student performance on these assessments, as well as those put in place at the state level after the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the latest reauthorization in 2001 better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it was clear that student performance varied across our nation and within states. Each of these reauthorizations of this federal law attempted to improve student performance by placing requirements on states to improve teacher preparation, certification, and professional development, promote partnerships among families, communities and schools, standards, programs school improvement, and a host of other practices.
However, almost twenty years later the nation is revisiting the goal of having higher standards for all students. Not just the students in adequately resourced schools and districts with nurses, counselors, grade level texts for all students, and learning supplies, distinguished teachers, curriculums that include science, art, music and physical education, or students in schools in high income/not high-poverty communities—ALL students. Sixty years (that’s 60!) after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the adults in charge of the education of our children are still debating whether to have high standards for the knowledge and skills that all students should attain or continue business as usual. Fellow contributor, Nathan Alexander highlights the implications of the current politically driven education reform movement for STEM education. Let’s be clear, business as usual is not serving our students, especially our non-white students and students in moderate- to high-poverty areas, our teachers, or our communities. And if our communities, the foundation of our democracy, are not being adequately prepared to pursue their desired (and legal) way of life and contribute to society then where will be in 50 years?
One of my sheros, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said at an Education Summit that “Schools reflect issues in broader society.” Our debate on the CCSS reflects a critical issue that this nation has been trying to push past since that 1954 Supreme Court decision and everything leading up to it. And in the midst, children are continuing through the system, living through inequities that shape their lives and their passions as they become adults. I lived education inequality and it’s shaped my career. This debate about the CCSS is not rooted in what’s best for children and our communities; it’s about who had the idea and who funded it. Once we return to discussions of improving student performance back to the needs of students, communities, and our society, we can get back to really making headway on rectifying education inequities and improving public education.