Public Policy Forum Blog

Higher Academic Achievement May Require Higher Standards

While at the gym last week, I overheard two fathers discussing the homework their elementary and middle school children were bringing home. The general feeling was that the homework was too hard and that students were being asked to do complex tasks in earlier grades than when the dads were kids. They lamented about how things are so different today – even teaching math differently!

But with parents, educators and employers saying that students are not academically prepared, there seems to be a disconnect between what people say they want in terms of educational attainment for our schoolchildren in general and what parents want in terms of educational demands on their kids.

Of the 65 developed countries that participate in the PISA international assessment of 15 year-olds, the United States ranked 36th in math, 28th in science and 24th in reading. Making things worse, the scores for U.S. students have actually fallen in each category since the last assessment in 2009. Without changes to our current education system, our students – and our country – will likely find it more challenging to compete.

Setting aside international comparisons, Wisconsin trails other states in terms of what our students know. NAEP – referred to as The Nation’s Report Card – assesses 4th and 8th grade students in reading and math. The most recent results show Wisconsin ranks 18th in 4th grade math, 30th in 4th grade reading, 13th in 8th grade math, and 24th in 8th grade reading. Improving educational outcomes is essential for our state.

The national and international data show that we need to raise the bar and educate all students to higher levels. It is a challenging task that will require a stronger curriculum, higher quality teaching, and parental engagement. Think of these as three legs of a tripod, each leg supporting student achievement.

The first leg of that tripod, a stronger curriculum, is already being addressed. The Common Core State Standards define the knowledge and skills students should learn in K-12 to be prepared to succeed in college and careers. These standards have been adopted and implemented by 43 states, including Wisconsin in 2010.

The second leg, high quality teaching, is also underway. Teacher preparations programs at colleges and universities have begun to align their curricula with the Common Core to ensure new teachers understand how to teach to the higher standards. Moreover, states across the country – including Wisconsin – offer professional development opportunities to help teachers become more effective.

But – as any student with knowledge of gravity will tell you – a tripod with only two legs is bound to fall. Parents can’t claim to want stronger academic preparation and then balk when their student is faced with a challenging curriculum. Raising academic achievement for all students means that we change what we teach and how we teach it.

To the dads at the gym: you’re right, school is more complex and the homework more challenging for your kids than it was for you…but perhaps that’s a good thing.

Joe Yeado