When Thurgood Marshall walked through the doors of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 to challenge the doctrine of “separate but equal,” he knew that he was only focusing on one half of the problem. Marshall had spent his early years at the NAACP fighting for equal access to high-quality education in all-black and all-white schools alike. By the 1950’s the political winds had shifted enough to challenge legalized segregation, but there was a catch: equal education had to take a back seat.
On Saturday, the 60th anniversary of Marshall’s masterful victory in Brown v. Board of Education, we need to focus on the NAACP’s original, broader vision for schools that are both integrated and equal. I believe the new and much-discussed Common Core standards will move us toward that goal.
The educational landscape today is defined by its harsh inequities. Students of color lag behind their white peers in test scores and graduation rates on nearly every indicator. This is not an indication of these students’ ability or desire; rather, African-American and Latino students tend to live in poor neighborhoods with underfunded schools, and these schools lack the experienced teachers, extracurricular activities, and access to college courses that help students thrive.
The new Common Core standards are an essential tool for bridging the education divide. Simply put, Common Core is a set of benchmarks that define what students should be learning at each grade level in math and English. The standards were developed by two nonpartisan state organizations — the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — and they have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia. Yet they have come under increased scrutiny as they begin to take effect.
Critics on the right claim the standards represent a federal takeover of the public education system. Critics on the left argue the new, harder tests will be used to unfairly assess teachers. To be sure, the perspectives of parents and teachers are critical as we think about how to reform classroom teaching. Yet one constituency matters most: our students. Common Core standards will help us achieve Marshall’s original vision of equal access to high-quality education.
The first step to solving a problem is identifying it correctly. The Common Core standards offer clear, consistent and high expectations for what children should be learning at each grade level. Although the new tests are often more difficult, they also offer a more accurate portrait of student achievement. Parents and policymakers can use the new data to find out which districts, schools, and teachers are struggling to meet expectations — helping parents make a stronger case for investment in the schools that need it most.
Second, the Common Core standards will help students master critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will help them succeed in life. The standards set clear expectations for students to digest multifaceted text, gain the ability to understand the why — and not just the how — of math, and use evidence and data to make arguments. These abstract skills are more effective than rote memorization, and they will help students prepare for real-world challenges. In short, Common Core helps teach children how to think.
To be sure, Common Core is not a silver bullet. Closing gaps in education will also require that we increase access to high-quality pre-school, expand learning opportunities for struggling students and schools, and make much-needed structural changes to public education in disadvantaged communities. Also, if schools lack the resources to implement new standards and retrain teachers, then no program will have the desired effect.
Still, the Common Core remains a significant step forward. As we celebrate Brown v. Board of Education, we must recommit Marshall’s broader vision of an integrated and equitable public education system. Common Core will help us with that challenge.