11/08/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

To Understand Education Crisis, Read The Hunger Games

The principal of an inner-city Washington, D.C. elementary school has an interesting suggestion for policymakers looking to understand America's education crisis: "Read The Hunger Games."

For those who haven't already devoured the books, The Hunger Games suggests a future in which undernourished, undereducated, and undertrained kids from the poorest parts of the country are made to compete for their lives with peers who've had every advantage. In theory, every child has a shot to win The Hunger Games, but no one expects the poor kids to make it very far.

It's an expectation to which this Washington, D.C. principal says her students can relate. Thousands of low-income students around the country come into challenged schools with little pre-school preparation, and from homes where putting food on the table can be a daily struggle. Yet, someday these kids will enter an arena with peers whose entire ecosystems are built to ensure their academic success and ability to compete for the best colleges and jobs.

No one is surprised by the outcome. The difference in test scores between the poor and non-poor is twice as large as the gap between blacks and whites. At America's 146 most selective public and private colleges and universities, only 3% of the student body comes from the nation's bottom socioeconomic quartile. According to a 2013 study from The Council on Foreign Relations, on standardized tests, the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is 75 percent wider today than when baby boomers were in school. "The real scourge of the U.S. education system--and it's greatest competitive weakness--" writes the CFR's Rebecca Strauss, "is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student's academic career."

State school officers from around the country have agreed on a critical first step to correct inequities inherent in the current system: common academic standards, designed to make sure those kids in inner-city Washington are taught the same material--and held to the same expectations--as kids just down the road in the wealthy suburb of Fairfax, Va., and in communities across the country.

The Common Core Standards help correct the inconsistent--even chaotic--state-by-state standards that have governed our classrooms and allowed low expectations to set in where students and teachers are operating at a disadvantage. In place of the thousands of varying goals and curricula, The Common Core offers a rigorous and cohesive alternative, at the same time both elevating expectations and leveling the playing field.

We need it. By 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some form of post-secondary education; too many of our students aren't meeting even the baseline criteria. Which is why business leaders, including the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are advocating for Common Core; higher expectations and consistent standards are not only good for kids, they are a business imperative. We are developing the leaders and workforce of the future.

With just the right combination of accountable teachers and schools, great support systems and services, and a whole lot of individual resilience and grit, a small percentage of our lower-income kids will fight their way into the arena and compete. But for too many others, the outcomes are left to chance. If we're serious about closing the academic performance gap between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, we must also be serious about changing expectations for low-income students. America's global competitiveness rests, at least in part, on our belief that every child deserves a quality education, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Common Core can't solve all the problems facing U.S. education, and especially our lower-income students, but 45 states and the District of Columbia have agreed it is a good start. Creating specific education, knowledge and learning requirements for each grade level gives teachers the tools they need to prepare classroom instruction, and enables parents to better support their children at home. It will require enormous political will to see Common Core through, but the promise is that we might bring expectations for learning back into balance for all students--and ensure the odds are in their favor.

Laysha Ward is the President of Community Relations at Target. Target is on track to invest $1 billion in education by the end of 2015. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" hits theaters Nov. 22.