05/16/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Does High School Matter?

Are our high schools actually teaching our children anything of importance or lasting value? Not according to one observer:

The products of American high schools are illiterate, and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case. One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the 'uneducated' and the 'educated' is so slight.

The reason for this phenomenon is, of course, that so little education takes place in American educational institutions.

While it sounds contemporary, this critique actually appeared more than 60 years ago in a September 1953 article, "The Great Books and a Liberal Education," by the noted literary critic F.R. Leavis who was quoting the then President of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

As anyone who has ever worked in education policy knows, reform comes at a glacial pace, if it comes at all. Nearly 30 years ago, education reformers Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Diane Ravitch published a book entitled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The Finn-Ravitch study was based on the first national assessment of history and literature. They stated that "[w]hat is needed in both subject areas for all students is a core curriculum, a commitment by the schools to teach history and literature to all students, as appropriate to their age and ability." (Emphasis in original).

Today, many American states are now moving forward to adopt Common Core State Standards in several subjects, most notably in English and math. Growing out of nonpartisan efforts by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with major financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Common Core State Standards represent an effort not to federalize control over educational content but, rather, to promulgate a set of basic standards representing what an American high-school student should know and be able to do after 12 years of secondary education.

What could be wrong with this activity?

While several states have embraced the Common Core State Standards, an unfortunate political backlash has begun to emerge that threatens this important movement's momentum. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush recently attracted criticism from some conservatives when he voiced strong support for the Common Core State Standards. Governor Bush was right to embrace the standards. We need an assessment system that can tell us whether American secondary education is effective. Such a system requires content mastery that can be measured in a way that is relevant for students, teachers, parents, employers, our postsecondary-education sector and an increasingly interconnected world.

If we want high school to matter, then we need to hold our graduates to high standards when it comes to assessing what they have learned and can do after 12 years. The alternative is to lumber along with a lackadaisical, fragmented system that is completely inadequate for preparing our students for global competition and their role as engaged citizens in a healthy democracy.

The competition our students face is not just in the workplace but in the postsecondary education sector as well. If our high-school graduates are unprepared for college and university work, then remediation costs increase, as does the time to degree completion. The Lumina Foundation has urged the nation to mobilize to reach a goal of 60 percent higher-education attainment by 2025. For this goal to be reached, our high schools will have to raise their standards and develop accountability mechanisms that can tell us more precisely what their graduates know and can do.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ("OECD"), through its Program for International Student Assessment ("PISA"), does us an enormous favor by providing a sobering reality check in disciplines like math, science, and reading, where American 15-year-olds rank 26th, 21st and 17th, respectively, out of the 34 OECD nations. Business leaders will affirm that what gets measured tends to improve. To have effective measurement one also needs a standard of measurement, a benchmark, and that is what the Common Core State Standards provide. As the OECD noted in its 2012 key PISA findings for the United States, "An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains also in PISA."

Rather than fear the rigor of the Common Core State Standards, we should embrace them. A country like France for years has had a high-stakes high-school exit exam known as the "baccalauréat." The "bac" is given over several days, has written and not multiple-choice questions, and measures knowledge not aptitude. If you don't know the material, you can't "game" this test. Additionally, there are "bacs" given for those who plan to attend university and for those who plan to enter the workforce directly after their secondary schooling.

There is no federal conspiracy behind the Common Core State Standards -- just a desire to ramp up the rigor, ensure excellence and accountability, and, ultimately, create an American education system that no longer shortchanges its students with feel-good nostrums about how they are really doing.

Charles Kolb, a Lumina Foundation Fellow, is President of the French-American Foundation -- United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986 - 1990. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.