Expecting More: Rigor and Excellence in Our Classrooms

We owe it to our children and ourselves to demand higher expectations and a system where all stakeholders, from the state house to the school house are held accountable when it comes to education.
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Having been privileged enough to win championships as a professional athlete, as well as coach and mentor to some of the most gifted student athletes in basketball, I can attest to the importance of rigor and showing up "ready to play." In the NBA, and indeed all professional sports, we reward and celebrate excellence, yet when it comes to education, we are willing to accept the destructive inequity that mars our current education system. We are willing to accept the lowered expectations and sub-par performance that are the hallmarks of poverty. We as Americans take pride in having the best athletes. We are committed to being number one. However when it comes to education our game plan is flawed and our kids have not been supplied with the resources to compete and win.

It's hard to argue with the final score, whether on the court or in a report on the state of our nation's education system. We know the facts -- we are falling behind on the global stage and achievement gaps persist, and in some cases are widening. The latest numbers from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tell the story better than anyone can: Our ranking fell from 25th to 26th out of 34, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in math, from 17th to 21st in science, and from 14th to 17th in reading. Though on average US K-12 spending in education is on par -- if not better than -- many, grave inequities persist that create an environment where, as OECD has noted, "students across the United States are not equally well prepared to compete in the United States labor market."

Efforts such as the Common Core State Standards aim to address these issues, particularly the issue of equity. Having earned my master's degree in education from UC Berkeley earlier this year, coupled with my own experiences growing up on the west side of Chicago, I know all too well the history of educational inequity that plagues our nation's young people -- having a ZIP code determine an entire life's future. My mother and father's guiding star: that education was the best way out of poverty and changing your ZIP code. That was not only a family belief, but education was a community commitment. That fundamental belief in education has never left me -- and has brought me to where I am today.

Education, simply put, is the path to a better life. The Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, developed in partnership with teachers, parents, administrators and experts from across the country, provide a clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents are reading from the same playbook and we are all on the same page. There has been a lot of misinformation lately about the origin and purpose of these standards. The facts are simple. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need to be college and career ready in the 21st century.

I stand with those who support the Common Core State Standards as a battle cry for change, a clarion call to our community and our nation that we are no longer willing to accept achievement gaps and poor performance as inevitable outcomes. It will not be easy, it will not happen overnight. We may need to rethink timelines around assessments and how that information is used to inform teaching and learning. We need to listen closely to our educators and leaders when they share feedback about implementation plans that do not include aligned resources, training for all educators and parents as partners in the process. We may need to revisit academic assumptions when parents and students bring forth the reality of what is happening in the classrooms and homes across our great nation. What we cannot and should not do is give up and retreat.

Let us be bold. Let us, as Americans, prepare our youth to be the best. We owe it to our children and ourselves to demand higher expectations and a system where all stakeholders, from the state house to the school house are held accountable when it comes to education. We must no longer turn a blind eye to what has been rightly deemed the "civil rights issue of our generation." Let us prepare our youth to once again be the best.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA. He is now an analyst for NBA TV and is a regular contributor to NBA.com.

He serves as Chairman and CEO of Isiah International and is founder of Mary's Court Foundation, which focuses on education.

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