04/23/2013 05:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

Beyond the Common Core: Transforming Low-income Housing to Support School Outcomes


The United States is failing to produce a nation of high-achieving students, graduates, and professionals. New Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, aim to improve America's academic standing by setting similar academic goals as found in high-performing systems around the world.

Setting higher academic expectations with the new Common Core can be beneficial for all students. However, while setting higher standards may lead to higher achievement for students who have mastered the basics and have an otherwise supportive learning culture in and out of school, those who are already behind and live in under-resourced communities may be confronted with more academic obstacles than they face today. For example, in Kentucky, which is both a high-poverty state and the first state to use tests based on the Common Core, the number of students who were once "proficient" in math and reading dropped by one third in middle and elementary school.

Higher standards must be set in order for the U.S. to be globally competitive. However, learning doesn't start with the Common Core; learning starts at home.

Before children even set foot in the classroom -- and some researchers would argue the world -- the foundation for literacy is being paved. In the article, "The Power of Talking to Baby." Tina Rosenberg writes that by the time a poor child is 1 year old, she has likely already fallen behind middle-class children in her ability to talk, understand, and learn. The complexities of living in poverty have resulted in many theories on why the achievement gap in America exists and how to close it, but many are beginning to advocate that closing the achievement gap begins by closing the "word gap" in early childhood. As Rosenberg shares in her article, one study found:

  • Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour
  • Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour
  • Children from professional families heard 2,100 words

The solution that may soon dominate the discussion on how to close the achievement gap is to educate low-income parents on the important role talk plays in their child's development.

As access to higher education expands, we're also seeing firsthand the effects of students moving through K-12 into college without mastering reading; a reality the Common Core hopes to eliminate. Taking a remedial reading course is the number one predictor that a student will drop out of college. Twenty percent of students need remediation annually to read at the college level. Of those students who enroll in a remedial reading class, only seventeen percent will graduate with a BA or BS within eight years, compared to fifty-eight percent of students who do not take remedial courses and earn their degrees within the same eight-year time span. Without reading skills, academic success is nearly impossible.

Beyond the social, academic, and professional implications of illiteracy on individuals, the burden illiteracy has on the U.S. economy is also staggering. In April 2012, the World Literacy Foundation estimates that illiteracy costs developed countries approximately 2 percent of their GDP, emerging countries 1.2 percent of their GDP, and undeveloped countries .5 percent of GDP. For America, whose GDP was approximately $15,040 trillion, the costs of illiteracy for the U.S. was $300.8 billion in terms of lost earnings, limited employability, lower tax revenues, lower technology capacity for the future, lost creation of businesses, health care costs, welfare, crime, education, etc.

Along with the high standards many states are setting for their schools, high standards must also be set for our communities where our students are nurtured and spend the majority of their time. As Rosenberg cites in her article, many studies are now unveiling that a child's education starts long before birth with the parent's own education.

What if, in addition to or instead of, putting millions of dollars into accelerating low-income students through high school and into college, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put money into the housing projects of Denver, for example, and built a gym to improve health; provide a green kitchen where nutritionists can conduct cooking classes which produce low-cost, high energy meals; plant a garden for community members to exercise real-world math skills; provide sewing lessons to make clothing; reinstate the many GED classes which have been cut for adults; provide an automotive shop to learn car repair; and state of the art computer labs where people can build their technological confidence and knowledge. Students and adults who are exposed to a home community with these kinds of active resources will allow more adults to master the educational and professional skills they need to land a job. These options can create supportive structures to support school reform initiatives and provide adult role models who can better improve their lives and be capable people in the lives of their children. School reform must start at home.

Until learning is fully integrated in the lives of low-performing students, the Common Core may only exacerbate the achievement gap, accelerating students who are prepared to succeed and leaving others behind. At best, it will be successful for students at all economic levels.

By reinventing the housing projects, low-income neighborhoods, and community centers, we can start reform where students spend the majority of their time with the most influential people in their lives, increasing the odds for successful implementation of the common core standards and the overall educational experience -- after school and summer learning, college preparation, and professional skills attainment -- that these parents and their children deserve.