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The discouraging reading and math scores by the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders demonstrate why early education and the new Common Core standards are necessary.

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the nation’s report card, show an educational system badly in need of progress.

There were incremental gains in both core subject areas, according to the Education Department, but those gains are coming far too slowly. And achievement gaps persist between white and black students, whites and Hispanics, and low-income and more affluent students.

Something has to be done to better ensure that today’s children will be able to compete on the global platform of tomorrow. These marginal advances show that the nation is not doing enough to prepare its students.

Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, voiced his own displeasure, complaining that schools have to focus too much on the task of bringing underprivileged students up to the level of their more affluent peer group.

He’s right. He’s also right in that the years before formal schooling starts are the critical ones, in line with President Obama’s proposal to help states finance preschool for all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.

At some point, the old clichés about a rising tide lifts all boats and it takes a village need to resonate with those who would stubbornly insist that even the youngest need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Once children get behind, it’s hard for them to make up lost ground. As Duncan asked, “Why do we want to stay in the catch-up business?”

For now, the new Common Core standards could go a long way toward improving student scores. One thing about the new guidelines is that they demand more from both students and teachers.

Meeting new standards and virtually any kind of change was bound to generate criticism. Officials in New York State and elsewhere across the country are very familiar with the resistance surrounding the Common Core. And when test scores become a component in teacher evaluations in order to leverage federal Race to the Top funds, there is an even louder outcry.

But consider the handful of states and jurisdictions that showed significant increases in average scores at certain grade levels on either reading or math. Among those were: the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Tennessee and Defense Department schools, which showed gains in both subjects and grade levels over the past two years.

Those schools implemented higher standards for students and rigorous evaluations for teachers, something that teachers unions in many districts – Buffalo, for one – have strongly opposed.

Washington, D.C., went through a difficult, highly public adjustment that began under the former chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee. Her iron fist upset teachers unions and others, but it put the district on the path to improvement.

Slight gains shown in the latest national report card are better than no gains or slipping backward, but it’s still not good enough to help our kids compete on a global scale. We need to do better.