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Q&A: Common Core an education ‘re-set’ for African-American students

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(Louisiana adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, joining 44 other states and the District of Columbia. For BAEO (Black Alliance for Educational Options) President Kenneth Campbell, the move marks a step in the right direction for the state's African American student population. He says the new standards will help "push the envelope for everybody," ensuring that schools prepare all students for a world that is "getting more complex." He spoke with New America Media's Khalil Abdullah.)

Khalil Abdullah: What is the conversation you're hearing within the African American community around Common Core?
Kenneth Campbell: We find very few people interested in educating the black community, black families, and black parents about the Common Core. So we're partnering with schools and states to get the word out because we're not talking about this in our community. We don't have enough of these conversations.

The NAEP (National Assessment on Education Progress) report came out a few weeks ago, once again describing the large and persistent achievement gaps for black children. I didn't see a black publication or a black news program talk about it. I didn't hear about it on the Tom Joyner Show. We've got to get in this game and start talking about education reform in ways that lead to us having an impact on education for our children.

Our kids are at the bottom in every positive educational measurement and at the top in every negative one. Our numbers are bad. Less than 10 percent of black kids nationwide are college-ready according to the ACT 2013 test. It's not acceptable to keep things as they are. We need transformational change and black people have to be involved in making it.

KA: What are the advantages for African American students with the Common Core?
KC: One of the things I like about the new standards is that they offer teachers the flexibility to incorporate these kinds of broader curriculums into their lesson plans ... I'm always pleased when I walk into a school and they're talking about the history of people of African descent. But even for the schools that do, you rarely hear about the kings and queens of Africa or African civilizations. Yes, you hear about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and that's well and good, but there's a whole history well in advance that's typically absent in education.

KA: How do you react to the criticism that Common Core is another version of teaching to the test?
KC: You can be anti-test with or without Common Core. There are still going to be state tests every year. The question is, "What are they going to measure?" In some of the places where they've started to implement Common Core or to use some of its assessments, you see scores drop precipitously for kids in the suburbs and in middle class communities. That gives you an idea of the rigor associated with these new standards.

Part of the idea of Common Core is that we need to push the envelope for everybody. What's coming out of our strongest schools is that, while they are good, they're not nearly as good as they need to be for our nation as we go forward in a world that's getting more complex. Common Core is an opportunity for us to re-set, and to have standards that are high and consistent from place to place.

KA: Why is consistency among states on educational standards important?
KC: I'm not a "big government" guy and have great respect for state's rights, but it's uncomfortable knowing that fourth grade doesn't mean the same thing in Mississippi, in Massachusetts, in California, or in Louisiana; that every state can determine what fourth grade is to it. That approach doesn't give me confidence we're preparing all of our kids to be as academically strong as they need to be. Even without Common Core, you have to have higher standards across the board, but some criticisms of Common Core are purely political; coming from states that have poor academic standards right now.

KA: How is Louisiana Gov. Jindal positioned in this debate?
KC: Like all politicians, when you have angry constituents saying, "We have to stop this," Jindal has to listen, but he hasn't backed away from Common Core at this point. Efforts to derail Common Core aren't being driven by state governors but by a combination of forces, including the Tea Party, some suburban folk concerned about the changes in their schools, some on the left who are pretty much against school reform in general, and folks who have legitimate concerns about implementation. In some places, these voices are making it difficult for the champions of Common Core to remain so.

KA: What are BAEO's leading short-term objectives?
KC: Educating parents and empowering them about choice. We should not live in an America where only people with money get to choose how and where their children go to school. We need to improve the quality of teaching. Accountability for schools is also paramount because we can compare and measure schools against each other. Are students doing better with you than they were doing previously? What are the sanctions for your school if students are not? We can get results with accountability. The structure of school governance also must be addressed. All of these areas are tied to the fact that the current education system is not giving the black community the results we need.

(BAEO was founded in 2000, and grew out of efforts by African-American educators and parents to improve educational outcomes for their children and community. For more on the organization, please visit their website.)

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