This post was cowritten by Robert Lenz, cofounder and chief executive officer of Envision Schools, and Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.
Tiana Alba-Lanzerin was not destined for academic success. Her parents never graduated from high school, and all her brothers and sisters dropped out after tenth grade. By her own admission, she was headed for the same fate. But now she is a student at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, intending to become a teacher.
How did Tiana manage to succeed? She would be the first to tell you that her high school experience prepared her well. Tiana graduated from City Arts and Technology (CAT) High School in San Francisco, which is part of the Envision Schools network. There, she engaged in numerous projects that challenged her not only to master academic content but also to apply her knowledge to solve real-world problems and communicate effectively. In order to graduate, she defended a portfolio of college-ready work before a panel of teachers, parents, and community members.
The ability to apply knowledge to real-world circumstances using complex skills -- to think critically, communicate effectively, and develop the academic mindset to persevere -- is called deeper learning. These competencies, which Tiana and all students at CAT develop, are essential for success in postsecondary education and careers. And they could become the norm for every student in every school in nearly every state. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted, expect all students to learn core content, think critically, communicate effectively, and develop the academic mindsets that enable them to persevere.
The CCSS embody deeper learning in many ways. For example, the English language arts standards call for students to build evidence-based arguments and conduct research. The math standards ask students to solve problems as well as demonstrate procedural fluency. And in high school, these standards emphasize written and oral communication in all subjects, not just English.
A recent article in The New York Times suggests that when states implement tests to measure student performance against the CCSS, fewer students will be scored as proficient in basic skills, since students will not be prepared for that kind of learning. Consequently, teachers might get blamed. It is possible that the percentages of students rated proficient in English language arts and math might go down, as they did in Kentucky last year, because the tests measure new competencies. But the experiences of students like Tiana show that these declines are not inevitable. Students can master these expectations if they are engaged in deeper learning and get the appropriate support.
And the experiences in schools like CAT show that teachers are not threatened by these standards; they welcome them. Teachers do not want to feel torn between teaching to state tests and preparing students for the world beyond school. And that's exactly why so many teachers are drawn to schools that have embraced the CCSS; they believe these standards embody the kinds of things students should learn. "Teachers come to us because what we do resonates with the reasons why they went into teaching," says Allison Rowland, CAT's former principal.
Business leaders and college professors say that college courses and the workplace demand the deeper learning competencies embedded in the CCSS. And they say that too many students lack these abilities, including some students who performed well on traditional tests. Of course the CCSS, in and of themselves, do not guarantee a level playing field. Naming a challenge does not solve it. But by describing an education that affluent students have been getting all along, these standards announce that all students should have access to the kind of learning they need. The United States cannot afford a two-tiered education system, where some students learn deeply, while others lack opportunities to develop the abilities they need to succeed. Students can learn and the nation owes them the chance to do so.