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Last spring I completed a study of American high schools; I looked at five schools serving very different economic and social communities. Here is the headline: If a student is not lucky enough to attend a high school located in an upper-middle or middle-class neighborhood, he or she is likely to get a watered-down, uninspiring, and inadequate set of academic choices—often taught in a hit-or-miss manner. If a student attends a school in an area of concentrated poverty, his or her course of study often consists of worksheets, out-of-date textbooks, and more worksheets. While the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15 will not solve the problem of providing equality of educational opportunities to all students, it is part of the solution.

High standards would seem to be an educational reform that would unite educators and the public… Lately, however, there has been some serious political pushback against the Common State Standards. Indiana Republican State Sen. Scott Schneider, for example, has introduced a bill that forbids the Indiana State Board of Education from adopting the Common Core State Standards… The website, Common Core: Education without Representation, makes the case that the Common Core is nothing less than an assault on states’ rights. The Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts worries that the Common Core may actually lower state standards…

This is a dangerous development because for decades the nation’s poorest students have been academically shortchanged. Standards help reverse this equation. In a recent national study I completed with my colleague Constance Clark, we discovered that high standards help struggling students to achieve at a higher academic level than their peers in states with low standards… I have a hard time reconciling the suffering of so many children with the abstract principle of states’ rights when I know it means that more generations of children and young adults will continue to lead lives on the economic and social margins. In reality, there is not a conflict between the two frames—there is a big difference between a national initiative and a federal mandate. The Common Core has been developed by the states, not the federal government.

Education Sector’s Peter Cookson Jr., casting a gimlet eye on Common Core opponents who fail to see the big picture.

Republicans are also the natural champions of meaningful school reform, since they’re far less likely than Democrats to be in thrall to the teachers’ unions that bear much of the responsibility for the failure of our urban public schools. The Right has correctly promoted choice and accountability as key principles in making schools better… Charter schools—public schools that operate free from union contracts and other bureaucratic restrictions—can change that equation by breaking up the regular public schools’ near-monopoly on education. They’re essentially a variation on free-market economist Milton Friedman’s idea of school vouchers. Because of the efforts of Republicans (and of some urban Democrats who’ve broken with the teachers’ unions), charters have begun to make inroads in cities. But they remain limited in number by law and lack the classroom space to meet the growing demand for their services.

Not every charter school is a success, any more than every restaurant is a success. But the best ones have delivered remarkable results. Harvard University’s Roland Fryer has examined students—mostly minority kids from poor families—who participated in lotteries to gain admission to charter schools. He found that the students who won a spot at the celebrated Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy, which includes two New York City charter schools, achieved test-score improvements that went a long way toward closing the black-white test gap that prevails in the regular schools. The reasons for charters’ success aren’t mysterious. According to Fryer’s work, what correlates most closely with their impressive achievements in New York City is their longer class hours. So hard work and discipline—long-standing Republican watchwords—are providing urban students with a path out of poverty. And city students are indeed the prime beneficiaries of charters, as MIT’s Joshua Angrist and several coauthors have shown in another study: charter-lottery winners in cities enjoy large test-score gains, but suburban winners don’t…

The GOP has more to offer on education. The No Child Left Behind act, a good first step toward introducing accountability into the nation’s poorly performing school systems, was a product of the Bush administration. Further, the most important ingredients in good schools are their good teachers, and Republicans can point to the private sector for lessons in building a talented workforce. Among those lessons: good performance should be rewarded, workers’ skills should be developed, and employers—in this case, schools—should be free to fire those employees who can’t improve. At present, union contracts tend to make firing difficult.

Edward L. Glaeser, in City Journal, on the need for Republicans to play more-prominent roles in urban policy and politics. School reform is one way to do so.

For more than a century, the whole point of schooling has been to restrict the curriculum, specify the required content, and limit the entry points to it — often by means of a watered-down, already obsolete text, mediated by a classroom manager whose task is to transmit the subject matter to 30 or more individuals of diverse backgrounds, experiences, interests, and resources. This is particularly true of the “big four” core subjects that the Carnegie Commission decided, nearly a century ago, to be the subjects that matter. English, math, science (biology, chemistry, and physics), and social studies count for much, and the fine and practical arts for much less.

Why not study anthropology, zoology, or environmental science? Why not integrate art with calculus, or chemistry with history? Why not pick up skills and understandings in all of these areas by uncovering and addressing real problems and sharing findings…

voiceslogoRob Riordan, making a case for expanding experiences for all children. One can argue about his effort to push for so-called “project-based learning” models that tend to do little in measuring whether kids are actually learning (and teachers are subject-matter competent). But at least his ideas on expanding experiences are in the right place.