“Our global economic competitiveness depends on a well-educated workforce,” asserts Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), addressing scores of educators, administrators, civic leaders, corporate executives and entrepreneurs. “Traditionally, education has been a local prerogative. We have to rethink this…If we are going to have a national imperative for education, you can’t allow 15,000 school boards to home bake their own little standards subject to their own political pressures and think we are going to have international competitiveness. We have to at least have some bare minimum core standards if our young people are going to compete.”
With those words, Scott set the stage for our discussion on why Common Core State Standards – the set of internationally benchmarked goals for public school students in English language arts and math – is so vital to multinational corporations as well as small and mid-size enterprises that seek to create a productive and innovative workforce.
His remarks opened the most recent BLACK ENTERPRISE symposium produced with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Today’s Business Crisis: Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce.” Our focus was on Common Core, which was developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. But according to a recent PDK/Gallup poll, the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 62% of those polled said they had never heard of the new standards. And of the 38% that said they had heard of them, many had erroneous ideas about implementation.
Common Core has been met with close scrutiny and a bit of apprehension from a number of administrators, educators and parents who argue that it “will make our urban schools look bad.” Moreover, these new benchmarks have become politically controversial due to fierce opposition in states like North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, some who have derided them as “ObamaCore” as they seek to delay or discard enactment.
The symposium, held during this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, has been an ongoing effort by BLACK ENTERPRISE and the Gates Foundation to clarify and demystify Common Core, sharing its potential for giving this generation of students its best shot at being prepared for college and the 21st Century workplace. “At the end of the day, it’s something simple…unfortunately, something so simple that it has become revolutionary – all of our children deserve to come out of public education able to read, write, be literate at a high level, knowing [their efforts] yield an outcome in which they can say, ‘I’m ready for the world,’ ” Joe Scantlebury, senior policy officer for the Gates Foundation, told attendees. “None of this happens without great teachers, partners, families and businesses elevating and demanding that this gets done.”
Reaffirming the commitment of BLACK ENTERPRISE to quality education as the tool for African Americans to attain economic and financial empowerment, President and CEO Earl “ Butch” Graves, Jr. endorsed more rigorous standards but maintained that “to meet Common Core, we need common resources.”
These were the issues that renowned Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree presented to speakers as moderator of two sessions – one in which federal and state policymakers who further defined Common Core and reviewed the implementation and assessment process, and the other enlisting educators and business leaders to discuss strategies and tools needed to upgrade public education so K-12 students can meet these new expectations.
In reviewing highlights from the exchange that occurred during our three-hour symposium, you will come to understand why American industry – including your business – must become engaged in Common Core and the advancement of public education.
Our first session, “New Policy for Education,” featured Acting Deputy Education Secretary James Shelton III, New York State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. and Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commission Mitchell D. Chester. Shelton led the discussion by sharing an email he read that insisted that the Obama Administration was trying to create a universal curriculum, comparing it to the NFL imposing a rule that all teams within the league must follow the same playbook and run the same four plays. Shelton used this analogy to make his point: “There is no Common Core curriculum. There are Common Core standards. The last time I checked, every football field is 100 yards, every touchdown is six points and every team had 11 players. There are a set of standards that everyone understands and because those standards exist, everyone can innovate as much as they want as long as they are playing the same game and defining winning the same way.”
He further stated that Common Core is not a federal takeover of schools but the Obama administration continues to support education while holding states accountable for students gaining a qualitative education. “Equity and excellence is our job,” he maintains.
Chester maintains that Common Core is important for regaining the academic standing of the United States, which fell from first to 12th in the share of adults ages 25 to 34 with postsecondary degrees. Moreover, parents and students have received “the wrong signals” that graduates have been adequately prepared for life after high school. “States have set benchmarks for a long time [related to literacy and math proficiency] but each state sets a different bar for competence.”
Shelton was blunt, maintaining that school systems have “been lying to parents and students for years that if they did the right thing” that graduates would be college ready. For example, he found that the English language and math requirements for fourth graders in Massachusetts could be the same as those for eighth graders in other states.
Although New York and Massachusetts represent top-performing states, both commissioners concede that a large number of their schools fail to make the grade. Chester says too often students of color and low-income youth have been left behind. King further made his point by using some rather alarming stats: In New York, the graduation rate for African Americans and Latinos stands at roughly 58% versus 85% for their white counterparts. “If we have a 30-point achievement gap 50 years after the March on Washington then we have a lot of work to do, ” says King. “We have two challenges: The capacity for resources and the capacity for professional development and instructional leadership.”
That’s why Common Core is so critical argues Shelton. When a majority of states adopt shared standards, Shelton offers, it produces “economies of scales in which [the US Education Department] can make a unprecedented high-quality investment across multiple states.”
Chester says the private sector must play a larger role: “Business leaders must be vocal and involved in conversations about education. Businesses must encourage state leaders to make Common Core a priority.”
Those sentiments were echoed by panelists Michael Hyter, Sr., vice chair of the Executive Leadership Council Foundation and a managing director of leadership and talent development for executive search firm Korn/Ferry International; Ronald Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University, a Charlotte, North Carolina HBCU; and Greg Roberts, executive director of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, all participants of our second session, “Why Common Core is Vital To Educating our Communities.”
Hyter stressed that business must become the catalytic force for implementation of Common Core as well as upgrading of schools so the talent pipeline can be expanded. He voiced great concern with the fact that about 7,000 students drop out of school a day at a time when 11 million people are unemployed nationwide but more than 4 million job openings require tech-oriented skills. “A quarter of the people are unemployed because they cannot take advantage of new skills,” he maintains. “With the increased use of sophisticated technology in business, we are seeing a greater divide when you look at the dropout rate.”
To meet the demands of this tech-driven environment, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)must be incorporated in Common Core-aligned instruction. In fact, Hyter has found that increasingly more corporations have been engaged in conversations with educators regarding curriculum development. In fact, some like IBM have teamed with the New York Department of Education, New York City College of Technology and the City University of New York to create a STEM-focused school in Brooklyn, New York for grades 9 to 12, offering graduates associate degrees and skills needed to gain IT jobs.
JCSU’s Carter believes Common Core will bridge the achievement gap and ensure students are fully equipped for institutions of high learning, reversing the trend of large numbers of entering freshmen forced to take a year or so of remedial courses. For students to evolve into professionals who can meet the demands of the global economy, they must be academically prepared. For instance, JCSU students, he says, “receive a computer and a passport” while continually encouraged to “stretch their mind and forge through complex situations.” Moreover, professors must design courses that can be taught abroad.
Roberts, who oversees an organization of 10,000 members, encourage individuals – educator or not- to visit to NASBE website to take the Common Core survey (the organization plans to release the data in November). He also stressed to our audience to focus on local school board elections because the new standards have “transitioned into a political issue. There are movements to destroy Common Core.”
He urges: “If you don’t vote in a school board election, you should be ashamed of yourself. A lot of issues are happening at that level. If you don’t vote whether you have children in the school system or not, we do all our kids a disservice.”
Ogletree posed to the panelists how the collaboration among business, universities and K-12 educators can drive Common Core standards. The response from Carter, who has developed an innovation center for third and eighth graders on the JCSU campus: “We can no longer operate in silos. We must communicate in a systematic way. The public school system can’t do it alone.”
He further asserted: “By 2020, the majority of students in this country that should eligible to go to college will be students coming from minority groups. For the first time in the history, white students will not be in the majority. If we do not get our stdents through the educational pipeline from K-12, we are going to have a marginalized society. We cannot afford for this to happen. Common Core Standards gives us a bridge.”