Investing in tomorrow's workforce

The Common Core State Standards Initiative offers a major step toward comprehensive education reform. More than 40 states have adopted these standards because they hold the promise of raising historically low academic achievement levels that condemn students of color and Native students to futures of limited opportunity. Such students represent a fast-growing population within our education system, yet they’re half as likely to graduate from high school as their white peers. The achievement gap leaves many of those who manage to graduate from high school unprepared to do well in college or the modern workforce.

A report by the Center on Education Policy shows that states are struggling to implement the common core standards, especially in areas that are necessary to actually transform our education system. Unfortunately, a future of fewer, clearer, higher academic standards is still years away even with the rapid adoption of the standards by states. This is troubling because common standards will do little to raise academic achievement if they don’t actually increase student’ ability to be successful. If poorly implemented, the standards risk making the crisis worse by raising expectations without giving students and teachers the tools to realize success.

In helping states navigate the important work of implementing higher standards, it is critical that we engage communities of color to ensure the needs of every student are well represented. Those of us who have worked to increase achievement among Native students know exactly what happens when an education system fails to consider the cultural values of those it is supposed to serve. Forty-nine percent of Native students leave high school without receiving a regular diploma. Disproportionately high dropout rates make it clear that those who do not see themselves or their perspectives reflected in what they learn in the classroom often disengage. In Native communities, the end result is a constant battle against high unemployment, poverty, and the hopelessness caused by a lack of opportunity. Communities of color must insist on being meaningful partners at every stage of the process to dramatically reform our education system so they may help educators implement standards that are not only strong and rigorous, but also culturally responsive. It is our collective responsibility as communities, parents, educators, and policy makers to use common standards as a catalyst for these reforms.

Let’s be clear about what is at stake. By 2020, the students of color who are currently in public schools will make up approximately 37 percent of the U.S. adult population. By 2050, that figure will jump to more than 51 percent. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, these students will be in the position to earn more than $300 billion in personal income, if their educational attainment equals that of white students by the time they enter the workplace. It is easy to imagine the overall impact on the nation’s economy if these young people can access the education and skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

Ultimately, the potential stumbling blocks to meaningful education reform cry out for robust federal leadership. Common standards and other state-level strategies to maximize student success must be supported by multifaceted federal policies that encourage high student achievement and reverse the downward spiral of our education system.

The effective implementation of the Common Core Standards Initiative and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will truly re-invent our public schools. We cannot allow that vision to fall short of its promise. With support from Congress and the leadership of the administration, it is within our reach to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed in the global economy and become informed participants in our democracy. It is our responsibility to seize that opportunity now.

Colin Kippen is the executive director of the National Indian Education Association.

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