Change is often difficult, and never more so than when it is being implemented by a huge bureaucracy that touches the lives of millions of adults and, more significantly, their children.
So it is around New York and most of the nation as school districts roll out the new Common Core standards, meant to ensure that students are learning the things they need to know in a world that is smaller and more competitive than ever.
It’s a stress-inducer, and the likelihood is that it will need to be massaged and tickled and tweaked over time to ensure that it is doing what it is supposed to do. It is all but impossible to roll out a program such as this without discovering defects.
Still, this much should be indisputable: Education in the United States needed to be improved and, what is more, it is not possible to improve something if it can’t be measured. Not only is the move to something like Common Core necessary, but testing is essential so that we know if Common Core is working. It is a fact of life.
This new approach to education has a narrower focus than before, but it digs deeper. Predictably, it has drawn opposition that is vocal and probably not without some merit. Given the challenges of instituting this change, it is possible – and maybe even likely – that some standards are too challenging or not challenging enough. Some tests may be too stressful, or insufficiently focused, but there is no avoiding tests. How else will parents, principals, teachers and taxpayers know if students are receiving the educations they need to succeed and to which students in New York are constitutionally entitled?
The Common Core standards came out of the U.S. Department of Education and were rolled out to the states, which could adopt them or not. Forty-five states have signed on. That stands as a pointed rebuke to those who insist that education is reserved only for the states and that Washington has no role to play.
It does, and, in fact, the role is critical. New York students are not just in competition with their peers from Pennsylvania and Ohio and North Carolina. They also must contend with well-educated students from Japan, Great Britain, India and other countries.
The federal government has a clear and compelling interest in encouraging the states to better focus their efforts, to ensure that their students are prepared for the world they are going to face.
No other entity is in a position to do that. It’s Washington’s job, and programs such as the Common Core standards and Race to the Top are key components in that critical task.
Interesting to note, though, other countries are starting to emulate some of the strengths of U.S. education. A recent New York Times story observed that while students in China spend hours poring over PowerPoints or doing homework, American students are also exposed to hands-on education: conducting classroom science experiments such as learning about gravity by dropping objects from the school’s roof.
But China is on to that and is looking to reform its system of education. Americans have to upgrade theirs, as well.
It is up to administrators, teachers and parents to support this system, understanding that whatever challenges it poses are a part of ensuring that New York’s students graduate with the knowledge they need to make their way in a world that demands more now than it has ever before.
Kids are tougher than adults sometimes recognize. Their instinct is to rise to expectations. It is possible to aim too high and create unnecessary, even damaging, stress, but the greater risk is to expect too little. Students will meet those expectations, too.