Top Public Schools Demand More than Common Core

Published October 11, 2013

The best U.S. public schools—including those with high numbers of poor and minority kids—require more of students than state standards and Common Core, and school leaders attribute their success partly to these high expectations.

The Common Core lists what its creators think kids should know in K-12 math and English. Forty-five states agreed to it under pressure from the Obama administration in 2010. The Core calls itself “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked,” but investigation into actually rigorous and internationally competitive standards within the United States casts doubt on these claims.

High-achieving public schools tend to take two approaches to producing outstanding results, said Florian Hild, principal of Ridgeview Classical Charter School in Fort Collins, Colorado. Ridgeview is on the U.S. News and World Report’s gold list of top schools in the country, and ranks second-best high school in the state.

“You can be top by playing the testing game better than all of the other public schools,” he said. “What other schools do is look at that as a side effect of a serious education. So if our students, our ninth graders can read Thucydides and Homer and Virgil, whatever the state test asks them to do, they can do.”

A look at what some of America’s best public schools teach children indicates that Common Core is more of an afterthought than a guide to high-quality instruction.

Best Schools in the World
BASIS charter schools are a network that began in Arizona, where their first two schools consistently rate in the top ten on several national rankings. Children attending BASIS encounter math books two or three grades above theirs—fifth graders take seventh grade pre-algebra, and so forth.

“I would describe our curriculum as competitive with the best schools in the world,” said Mary Riner, a Washington DC mother who lobbied to bring BASIS to her city. She is now its director of external relations. “We really are looking to close the global achievement gap.”

The Global Report Card from the George W. Bush Institute is one of many markers demonstrating that even the top U.S. school districts are mediocre compared to international peers.

“We call a school high-performing if 80 percent of kids can read at grade level,” Riner said, with disdain. “Our kids are years behind kids in Canada and Finland and Shanghai.”

To graduate from BASIS, students must take a minimum of six Advanced Placement exams, four in core subjects. Every student takes AP Calculus. The average student takes 10 AP exams, and 90 percent pass. Its Arizona schools operate on $6,500 per-pupil funding.

‘Crap Thrown Into School’
Riner sought BASIS for her children because she became annoyed with “the crap thrown into school to make it fun.” Her fifth-grade daughter’s Latin homework, for example, was coloring Latin words.

“It excites students to know more than their parents, and to have this knowledge and be able to think about it… That is rewarding. And that is fun. And that is what we’re trying to achieve, not this therapy kind of fake, shallow, immediate gratification,” she said, passionately.

To achieve a challenging academic environment, BASIS hires teachers who are experts in their field, most with content-based master’s degrees. Most teachers have majored in education, not a content subject. BASIS teachers work together to create a multi-grade syllabus, then have freedom to teach the material they’ve decided using their own style.

“We don’t even look at state standards,” Riner said. “That’s the last thing we do. State standards are there because we have to be in compliance. We finish the Common Core by the 9th grade… Literally what we are using are world standards.”

Poor Children, Rich Standards
BASIS schools have been criticized for offering a curriculum many children can’t keep up with. A third of their DC students are eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Other charter school brands specifically target hard-to-educate children from broken homes, and they hold students to higher standards than typical public schools, too.

Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools are renowned for doing what many say is impossible. More than 86 percent of KIPP students live in poverty, and 95 percent are African American or Latino. More than 93 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 83 percent of KIPP alumni have gone to college, according to KIPP.

“The state sets the academic objectives for the children, and [KIPP schools] extend those objectives because our job is not just to take them to college but to get them through college so they are successful and happy,” says Alma Salman, principal of KIPP’s Houston elementary.

To prepare for being a KIPP principal, Salman visited top public and private schools around the country. She saw what they expected of children, and although those expectations are higher than state standards, she wanted her students to have the best.

“The state says by the end of the school year the kindergarteners should be reading on level four, for example. We want our children to be reading at level six,” she said. “We read a lot more books to them and expose them to a lot more literature and phonics.” Similarly, Texas expects kindergarteners to be able to count from 1 to 20. KIPP Houston teaches kindergarteners to count to 100. Common Core asks the same, but it does not introduce kindergarteners to ordinal numbers (first, second, etc.), time and calendars, or graphs. KIPP Houston does.   

Like BASIS, KIPP teachers meet together across grade levels each year to plan lessons and make sure each subject and grade fits well with the next.

College Prep for Needy Kids
Also in Houston, 11 YES Prep charter schools also aim to lift disadvantaged children. Two of their high schools rank in the top 100 nationally, and in the top 20 in the state, according to US News & World Report. Its students are 97 percent Latino and African American, and 79 percent low-income. All its students graduate and attend college.

Teachers write YES Prep’s curriculum and thrice-yearly internal exams, said Jason Bernal, YES Prep’s president. In hiring teachers, YES Prep considers grades, experience, and administers a behavior assessment to see if the teacher will fit the school culture.

Then, candidates give a sample lesson in front of the principal and school leader they would work with. New teachers participate in a two-week intensive training, and all receive personal coaching and group professional development every week. YES Prep looks for “perfection, leadership, [and] rebound time,” Bernal said. The school also pays for performance rather than awarding tenure for longevity.

“It took 15 years to develop the curriculum and tests the schools use now. The schools’ curriculum development team started with AP exams and worked backwards to define what students will learn in each grade,” said Jennifer Hines, a YES PREP senior vice president: “We built 100 percent of our curriculum.” Each summer, they revisit curriculum.

 “We’re using AP as a proxy for what kids should know, and it’s admittedly a blunt instrument but we’ve found it to be at least consistent and fairly good,” she said.

State education standards “are somewhat helpful” but not extremely specific in outlining what should be different in each grade, especially in language arts, she said, “also when we’re talking about skills, not content, in science and social studies.. So if we are teaching a rigorous set of expectations and ensuring students are mastering them, we do not need to teach explicitly to the state assessments. And we will ensure we cover state standards, but that’s a small proportion of what we’re doing.”

In short, she said, education standards “are a starting point for us.”

Liberal Arts and Core Knowledge
State and national education benchmarks are more of an afterthought for schools that attempt to immerse children in time-tested education styles, such as the classical liberal arts. Colorado’s Ridgeview largely follows the Core Knowledge sequence in grades K-8. Core Knowledge outlines what a coalition of researchers have decided is essential content for preK-8, initiated by retired University of Virginia professor and literacy expert E.D. Hirsch. For high school, Ridgeview teachers write and revise their own curriculum.

Like the other school leaders School Reform News interviewed, Hild said his most important task was finding and improving excellent teachers who know and love their subject.

“We have a curriculum which we will teach, but we want to hire adults who are self-respecting intellectuals, and you can’t tell a self-respecting individual that the Colorado state standards will determine how we teach the American revolution,” Hild said. “That has to be determined by the individual teacher. They will cover the same material, but they have to own it.”

While large portions of state standards and Common Core focus on content-empty skills, Core Knowledge builds its curriculum recommendations based on Hirsch’s and other research showing that knowledge builds on knowledge, and so do academic skills. It is extremely specific.

Core Knowledge, for example, recommends children begin learning about money in kindergarten, while Common Core introduces money in grade 2. Core Knowledge would introduce fractions in grade 1, while Common Core does so in grade 3. Core Knowledge also expects children to be proficient in multiplication and division by third and fourth grade, while Common Core expects this by fifth and sixth.

While Hirsch and his foundation have endorsed Common Core, they also have said it does not sufficiently outline a good curriculum. For this reason, a number of Core Knowledge schools, like Ridgeview, have rejected Common Core. Hirsch agrees Common Core does not outline the essential content children need for a good education. Instead, the introduction to Common Core encourages “a content-rich curriculum,” which he hopes will have more schools reaching beyond Common Core into Core Knowledge.  

“Education has to do with human beings trying to grow as moral and intellectual beings, and if you regiment it you denigrate the ideals of education,” Hild said. “We don’t worry about the state tests and the Colorado state standards or the Common Core standards. We worry about the integrity of our curriculum and the implementation of a serious classical education.”

Image by Dmitar Denev.