Almost a decade ago, governors from across the country got together to have a long-overdue discussion about why so many students were graduating from high school ill-prepared for college. The business community was sounding the alarm about good-paying jobs going unfilled because high school graduates lacked basic math and reading skills, as well as good work habits.
The consensus among the governors -- Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals -- was that our students could do better but we had to set higher expectations to get better academic results. With the input of educators, parents and experts in English and math, along with governors and other state leaders, the Common Core State Standards were developed for English and math. Eventually, 46 states voluntarily adopted these standards, including Pennsylvania in 2010.
Lately, there's been a lot of negative chatter about the Common Core, much of it based on ill-informed speculation that it is a federal government plot to "take over" our local schools, dictate classroom curriculum or compile databases on our kids for some sinister, unstated purpose. In reality, the Common Core is a state-led initiative that involves no new student-data collection and in no way usurps Pennsylvania's long history of local control.
The Pennsylvania Common Core Standards will help give our students, parents and taxpayers assurance that the resources we put into education are truly preparing our graduates for the challenges they will face beyond high school -- whether that means moving on to vocational training, joining the workforce, enlisting in the military or pursuing a postsecondary degree.
To understand why the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards are necessary, consider the issues our schools and employers have been trying to address.
In 2012, about 32 percent of high school graduates in Allegheny County received diplomas despite failing to show proficiency in math and reading. (Failure rates for other area counties range from 26 percent in Washington County to more than 40 percent in Armstrong and Beaver counties.) If these underprepared graduates went on to postsecondary education, there's a good chance they'd either drop out or have to take time-consuming and costly remedial courses to learn what they should have learned in high school.
This lack of preparedness damages the region's economy, too. According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, nearly 7,000 job openings in seven Western Pennsylvania counties (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland) went unfilled for 90 days or more this year, in large part because employers couldn't find adequately skilled workers.
The fact is, giving a high school diploma to a student who is not proficient cheats the student and the taxpayers. Using the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards in conjunction with quality instruction and aligned assessments can help remedy this problem.
The standards don't tell teachers how to structure their lesson plans, they don't dictate which textbooks your kids have to use, and they don't undermine local control by school districts. The standards simply set the bar for what our students should know at each grade level. They serve as a floor of basic academic expectations, not a ceiling that limits a student's learning. If a school or district wants to set a higher academic bar than what is dictated by the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards, they are free to do so.
To ensure that academic standards are being met, our public schools use the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments and the Keystone Exams. The Keystone Exams are used in high school to ensure graduate preparedness, and when students fail a Keystone Exam, they can get additional instruction and re-take them. The goal is to make sure we aren't failing those students by letting them graduate unprepared.
Those who say we should abandon Pennsylvania Common Core Standards don't have a workable alternative. Doing so would mean stranding the commonwealth's students on an island of academic mediocrity and lost opportunities. Our students, parents, employers and taxpayers deserve better.
Joan Benso is president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (papartnerships.org). David Patti is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council (pegweb.org).