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The conservative case for Common Core academic standards

By Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman
Special to the Observer

For almost two decades, the U.S. has been working to improve its schools by holding them accountable for results on standardized tests. And there’s been some success, with the lowest-performing students showing marked gains.

Unfortunately, similar progress hasn’t been made for students in the middle or at the top. That’s not surprising, since the standards and tests in most states – including in North Carolina – were set at ridiculously low levels.

Now we see the result: Students have been taking and passing these standardized tests, yet emerge from high school not ready for college-level work in the core subjects, and not ready for decent paying jobs. As a result, many were sent to “remediation” and so taxpayers paid twice to educate them. (According to a recent study, North Carolinians could have saved some $113 million in 2007-08 on such remediation.)

The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute reviewed North Carolina’s standards and graded them a D in English language arts and math. In 2010, however, North Carolina adopted the Common Core State Standards, the product of a state-led effort aimed at aligning expectations for students with the demands of the real world. We rated these standards a B+ in English language arts and an A- in math.

We have long advocated for higher, clearer school standards that focus on essential skills and vital knowledge so as to prepare students to be productive, self-sufficient citizens. We also believe that key education decisions belong with states, communities, teachers and parents and were therefore glad that the Common Core limited its work to standards and did not push into curriculum or instruction.

In recent months, we have been puzzled by the small but vocal minority of conservatives who have joined forces with some on the far-left to oppose the Common Core. It’s appropriate, of course, to worry about threats like federal intervention into schools, ideological indoctrination of students, and poor-quality instruction. But the Common Core doesn’t promote any of those things. Instead, it pushes schools, teachers and students to higher levels of achievement and deeper levels of skill-and-content knowledge than most have accomplished in the past.

N.C. leaders should now stand up to ill-informed political attacks and demand answers from critics of the Common Core: would those on the left really remove testing and other measures that ensure that parents and teachers know whether students are learning all that they should? Would those on the right really have North Carolinians send their children to schools that are forced to scrap these higher standards?

North Carolina, to its credit, has opted to strengthen its standards for student learning. Opponents have an obligation to say what they would do instead.

In the meantime, however, something very promising is on the table. Energy should go into devising the best way to put it into practice in North Carolina. North Carolina made a choice for the better when it adopted the Common Core. It should not turn back now, especially under pressure from a few loud opponents without a better plan.

Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman are, respectively, executive vice president and national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of- center education policy think tank. Petrilli served in the George W. Bush administration while Brickman served as education policy adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

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