More Children Left Behind?

More Children Left Behind?: Common Core, Uncommon Infrastructure

Philadelphia Student Union's zombie apocolypse January demonstration in response to school closures in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Student Union's zombie apocolypse January demonstration in response to school closures in Philadelphia.

This past weekend, televised town halls in association with NBC News’ Education Nation introduced a number of different concerns within our nation’s educational system. Dr. Melissa Harris Perry hosted several students whom brought to the fore their concerns related to school safety, criminalization of youth, unfair academic standards, and additional social and economic challenges impeding their success and that of their peers. While much of my current work examines issues social justice organizing in education, particularly student activism in college, I want to use this space to engage an ongoing concern for K-12 educators and students, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

According the the initiative’s website, the CCSS is in place to provide a consistent baseline and clear understanding of what students, nationwide, are expected to learn and to better inform teachers and parents how they can help. Essentially, CCSS is designed to provide a set of of academic standards reflecting the knowledge and skills necessary for students to be successful in college and careers, ultimately to better position the United States in a global economy. This sounds great, right? Surely no student, parent, teacher, or administrator can argue with wanting to better prepare our students for success. However, as has been done for several years, most recently with initiatives like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, setting standards and encouraging competition for resources to improve the entire field of our nation’s schools simply has not been as effective as we all hoped. With regard to CCSS, a few notable of concerns have arisen. For me, the well-known (and growing) economic disparity between our nation’s schools is most immediate.

Jonathan Kozol’s seminal book, Savage Inequalities, first introduced me to the details of just how disparate the conditions between schools in a particular city and between cities in different states can be. What Kozol draws attention to are the ways in which the financial infrastructure supporting school districts predestines certain schools to fail more so than others. In a public system, schools are supported largely by the local property taxes in a given district. Simply put, higher property tax revenues, particular from homeownership, equate to better schools.

What is more, major cities with large portions of minorities continue to have the lowest annual budgets, despite being taxed at a higher rate and serving a larger number of students in a given schools. For many years in cities like Philadelphia, many of the professionals commuting to the city to work live in the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them to other districts like Upper Merion rather than circulating within the School District of Philadelphia. In fairness, some remediation of this problem has come in the way of city taxes for those commuting to work. However, not nearly enough of these taxes can be collected to make up for the lost revenue of taxes in cities where property ownership is unlikely due to residents living near or below the poverty line.

This all brings me to my point (finally, I know). In a speech to the American Society of News Editors earlier this summer, Arne Duncan vehemently defended Common Core, saying 

"Today, for the first time in American history a child in Mississippi will face the same expectations as a child in Massachusetts," Duncan said. He continued to say, “we are no longer lying to kids about whether they are ready. We are finally telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. We are finally holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education."

At least one problem with the above statement is the expectation of states adhering to the same academic standards while not having the same resources. For example, according to state reported data, the difference in average expenditures per student in K-12 education between Mississippi ($9,756) and Massachusetts ($13,507) is $3,751. To put this in further perspective, the least amount of money spent per student in a district in the state Massachusetts is only $108 less than the average spent for the entire state of Mississippi. This means many of the schools in Mississippi will be held to the same standards  applied in Massachusetts with resources unequal to even even poorest schools in Massachusetts. This means with fewer books, co-curricular and after school enrichment programs, and underpaid teaches, Mississippi schools are expected to produce the same results. If you're at all like me, you're thinking, "only in America," right?

Given what we understand about local property taxes supporting school districts, and thus the money spent per student, CCSS attempts to hold accountable states who are economically inept to support their students learning. As we now, with standards come accountability measure such as high-stakes testing. Sure, we could hope for federal stimulus to help support these schools in need. However, to date, we simply have not invested enough of our financial resources at the federal level into our education system to make up the difference. And, given on what we spend most of federal dollars, I don't think we should hold out for the federal government to save us.

The bottom line for the Common Core is this: we can't have common standards for which we must all be accountable without common resources to achieve them. Now, I don't know where these policy makers received their home training, but from whence I come, when we have the same destination and someone has a head start, we call that cheating.  I'm fine with standards. Hell, in many schools, these standards are already being taught and met. However, we must be fair in our educational practice across the board. If we desire common standards, let's provide common resources.