Suzanne Fields

It's the season of Pomp and Circumstance, flavored with dashes of parental pride, as a rising generation in cap and gown marches solemnly into its future. They're glowing with the beauty of youth, eager to take on the world. But what have we taught these young men and women, and will what they have learned lead them to become good citizens with productive and satisfying jobs?

A high school diploma is only the first rung of the ladder to a complete education and career with the freedom (and hope) to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We hold these truths to be self-evident. Or we did once. But many of these truths now come stippled with asterisks. We haven't actually come very far in achieving excellence in our public schools over the 30 years since Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published its report with the provocative title: "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." It diagnosed the public schools as suffering from "a rising tide of mediocrity."

Remedies followed that promised that no child would be left behind and every child could race to the top, but mediocrity continues to rise on a dark tide of peril. Many young Americans can't even identify the decade in which North and South fought the Civil War, or whom we fought as enemies in World War II. Public school students continue to do poorly on competitive tests in math and reading, falling farther behind those in other industrialized countries.

The latest and best idea to fix all that is called "Common Core Standards," which have been adopted by 45 states. This time, reform comes from the bottom up. The standards are largely the creation of the nation's governors, with disciplined analysis of content drawn from lists of "cultural literacy," with funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The standards are questioned and debated from different directions, and the debate is making unusual allies and adversaries, as if characters in the Netflix television series "House of Cards." Tea party conservatives call Common Core "core corruption," "leftist indoctrination," and government tyranny at work in the schools. Other conservatives counter that it's a "core correction," "content enrichment," knowledge based on standards to make America competitive across the globe.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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