Commentary, Larry Aubry, Posted: Mar 20, 2014. This photo and
the article below were reprinted from New America Media at
While California’s linguistic, ethnic and racial diversity is often cited as one of the state’s great assets, there is also considerable variance in academic achievement. For example, African-American students have consistently ranked below all other groups in academic performance locally and nationally. This disparity is largely due to systemic negligence, disproportionate poverty, inadequate resources and ineffective teachers found in many Black communities.
In order for California’s new Common Core education standards to succeed, districts and the state must address the needs of these students.
Common Core is a new set of standards in English language arts and mathematics designed to assess and instruct students, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and analysis. Instruction is to be more interactive and project-based. Textbooks will have less of an emphasis on rote exercises and more on abstract reasoning. And these are areas where Black students are most deficient and in dire need of equitable resources.
Adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, part of the aim of the Common Core is to shift California’s focus more toward equity and close achievement and opportunity gaps. Without a strong commitment to equitable allocation of resources and funding, however, Common Core could in fact widen the gap between students most in need and those more advantaged in terms of family income, effective teachers, etc.
Common Core is not a federal program; it was developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State Officers. However, the Obama Administration makes funding for some education programs contingent on state education standards. If a state does not adopt Common Core it must show that it has other standards that will prepare students for college and work if it is to receive federal funding.
The Oakland-based advocacy group Education Trust-West recommends
steps policymakers should take to ensure students of color, low-income students and English language Learners benefit from the massive changes in California’s education system:
- Equitable access to rigorous standards, curriculum, instruction and assessments: Districts must support teachers in transforming their instructional practices.
- Adequate and equitable funding: The state must ensure its new funding law, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), is not just about local control and flexibility, but also, and most important, about educational justice.
- Equitable access to effective teachers: California must “incentivize” its best college graduates, particularly in fields such as science and math, to select teaching as a field.
- Accountability for student results: California’s systems of accountability must be streamlined but not stray from a focus on academic achievement.
Georgia State University Professor Julie Washington is an expert on pathways to high academic achievement and Black student literacy. She says Common Core is a response to the country’s growing diversity and will help raise expectations for all students. She also feels the new standards—if they are adhered to—should benefit African American children because classroom expectations will be raised and more transparent.
Washington also notes that low-income African American students speak a dialect that differs substantially from those the school expects, i.e., they are Standard English Learners. She feels Common Core will help address language acquisition disparity because language differences are addressed in Common Core. (This is very important because Black children are often ostracized in the classroom simply because they do not speak Standard English.)
Lisa Delpit, a professor at Southern University and A&M College, has also cited language and dialect as learning issues. She is the author of, among other books, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. She argues that a focus on process-oriented – as opposed to the skill-oriented writing instruction stressed under Common Core – reduces the chances for Black children to develop the tools required for accessing “culture power.”
“I believe what we really need to aim for is that children bring their minds to schools, not just their ability to regurgitate facts,” says Delpit.
Delpit also stresses the importance of teachers altering practices in urban schools to take into account the culture and life experiences of Black students, and discusses the significance of educators having positive attitudes towards African Americans and other students of color.
Common Core was adopted because of a variation in state-to-state student performance, teaching quality and academic outcomes. However, concerns about the impact of these more rigorous standards on students – including many Black children – who are already performing below grade level cannot be ignored.
The need to standardize curriculum, instruction and student performance seems right; but the needs of those least prepared to benefit from the more rigorous standards must be given full consideration. For African American children, that is Common Core’s challenge and promise.
Larry Aubry is a veteran activist and columnist with the LA Sentinel, one of Los Angeles’ leading African American publications. This story was produced as part of New America Media’s 2014 Ethnic Media Education Reporting Fellowship, with support from the California Education Policy Fund. Aubry's article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Sentinel.