09/15/2010 01:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Promise of Real Change in Our Education System

School is now in full swing, and students throughout the country are readjusting to new classmates, teachers, and schoolwork. Many states are also marking the new school year by beginning to implement the Common Core State Standards, which are part of a voluntary, state-led initiative to establish a clear set of educational standards for K-12 English language arts and math. The standards are designed to ensure that all students graduating from high school are prepared for college, work, and success in the global economy. Thirty-seven states have adopted the standards since the process started more than a year ago, and they are now in a critical implementation phase.

For students of color, particularly Latinos, as well as English language learners (ELLs), common standards represent real promise for change in our education system. Adopting common standards implies some of the biggest policy developments since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. And this change could not come at a more critical time. The current system, which allows states to set their own standards, puts U.S. students at a disadvantage by allowing for widespread variability in quality and rigor. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the current system a "race to the bottom."

This has proven especially consequential for students of color, who are disproportionately affected by low academic standards. A recent review of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which compares academic performance across states, found that those states with a greater degree of variation in test scores were largely in the south, southwest, and far west and have a disproportionate share of low-income, non-White, and ELL students. Latino students make up a fair share of this population; simply put, they are being taught to lower expectations and are not being served adequately. Common standards, if implemented properly, can change that.

It seems that state education agencies think so, too. Following California and Colorado's adoption of common standards last month, 78% of Latino students in the United States will now be taught to a unified set of standards. Schools should be held accountable for implementing them in a way that ensures greater academic success for students. Proper implementation should include aligned curricula and instruction, as well as assessments that are valid, reliable, and capable of accurately demonstrating the knowledge and abilities of students, especially ELLs. To achieve this, teachers will need effective professional development and support in order to help them incorporate the Common Core State Standards into their instruction. And, most importantly, successful implementation will require active parent and community participation.

Strong accountability is also central to making sure that schools have the resources and support to help all students reach more challenging academic benchmarks. If states are held accountable for empowering their students to reach their greatest potential, they will be sure to direct valuable resources to those the schools that need them the most. High standards alone will not ensure that students learn what they need to know, but they are a vital part of the solution to shoring up our educational system and making it more equitable for Latino students.