Louisiana now rests at the center of an ongoing debate about Common Core, a controversial set of standards aimed at improving student performance in elementary and secondary classrooms. Standards are generally thought to be good things, so why are so many educators and parents opposed to Common Core and the testing that comes with it?
The problem with Common Core is that it lacks common sense. Louisiana ranks 49th in the nation on national tests not because of its best students but because of its worst. Our weakest students can’t read English, are two or more grade levels behind, frequently miss school and often just don’t care. Their test scores drag down the state’s average, and with Common Core, they will drag it down even more because Common Core sets a high bar for students who can’t even clear a low one. It just doesn’t make sense.
A more sensible approach would focus on testing our students less and developing them and their teachers more. If we test our students, say, half as much as we do now, the money we save could be used to develop the knowledge and skills of teachers and school principals to do what it takes to bring our lowest students up to at least average. This one achievement alone would catapult Louisiana from near-last among the states to the middle of the pack, probably higher.
Because of Common Core and the teacher evaluations that come with it, Louisiana’s public schools are suffering an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators. It is not the weakest who are leaving but the strongest who are fed up with not being allowed to teach beyond the tests.
Instead of developing tests we should be developing our kids. This means more than preparing them to pass tests. It means, above all, helping them to acquire the initiative for self-development. Inventiveness, imagination, ingenuity — the traits always associated with America and Americans — are rooted in the belief that self-improvement is not only possible but essential “to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is the initiative to self-development that our weakest and demoralized students need so that they can, with proper support, make themselves stronger.
A more sensible approach would have Louisiana teachers, principals and parents working together in each school to figure out which of the Common Core standards are worth keeping, which can be fixed and which should be thrown out.
A more common-sense approach would have our universities working with our schools to ensure that standards for reading, math and science are kept high but not rigid, inflexible and without regard to the many other talents that our students have. To stick to the sports metaphor that proponents of Common Core like to use, it is not just students who can clear a high bar that we need but also ones who can run long distances, vault over obstacles and lift heavy weights. America wasn’t built on one or two talents but on a diversity that our democracy set free to find its place and best expression. The most recent research suggests, for example, that the more arts courses students take, the better they do in science and math.
The nation needs more common sense in school reform, and in this, Louisiana can be a leader. Bringing the least achieving among our students to average by focusing less on testing and more on developing them and their teachers stands not only to jump Louisiana ahead of half the other states but, more importantly, to give hope for a better life to the bottom 20 percent of the state’s students and their families. This would not only be a prudent thing to do but also the right thing.
Robert O. Slater is a coordinator for the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership Program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.