What Every Child Can Learn from Kentucky

As schools adopt the Common Core, nationwide standards, they are drawing lessons from an unlikely pioneer

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Mauricio Alejo for TIME

Andrew Brennen had lived in five states before he could drive, making him an expert in everything that's wrong with American schooling. "In Georgia, I was definitely among the top students in my grade," he says. Then he moved to Maryland, and everything changed. "The level of content was definitely harder. I did not do very well." In Maryland, Brennen had to learn grammar that everyone else already seemed to know. He did so poorly in Spanish that he ended up repeating the class the next year.

In eighth grade, Brennen moved to Lexington, Ky., spinning the education roulette wheel one more time. When he got there, he did fine in science but lagged behind his friends in math. Brennen was basically the same wherever he went: a slim African-American boy with a wide smile and big plans. But "smart," he'd learned, was a relative term. This year, Brennen is a high school senior in Kentucky, applying to colleges in at least five different states--prepared to play catch-up yet again, wherever he may end up.

American education has always been run at the state and local level. Even as Washington has pushed states to try out this or that policy in exchange for federal funding, states have always chosen their own tests and learning goals. Historically this has meant that most states and districts have set the bar lower than colleges and many workplaces would like--or buried their teachers in so many competing demands that they are left to pick and choose what to teach in isolation.

All that is about to end. This fall, for the first time, a majority of American public-school children are working to master the same set of more rigorous skills in math and English. These new targets, known as the Common Core State Standards, have been adopted by 46 states in an almost inexplicably speedy wave of reform. With only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia abstaining, the Common Core movement represents the biggest shift in the content of American education in a century.

As such, hostilities have erupted on all sides. Tea Party groups refer to the standards as Obamacore, despite the fact that the federal government had nothing to do with their creation. The Republican National Committee condemned the standards in a resolution, calling them a "nationwide straitjacket." Under political pressure, lawmakers in a handful of states, including Indiana and Michigan, are debating whether to halt the rollout of the new standards.

Meanwhile, leftist critics have attacked the standards as "corporate" reforms, despite the fact that they were developed by teachers and researchers at the behest of a bipartisan group of governors and state education leaders. And some union leaders have called for more money and time to prepare teachers and students for tests associated with the new targets, most of which have yet to be completed.

One state bypassed all this tumult, however. It barreled headlong into the future three years ago and embraced the new targets before any other state, holding its children and teachers to a higher bar. That state, long renowned for its bourbon and racehorses, will not immediately come to mind as an educational powerhouse. But Kentucky is the undisputed leader in this historic American journey, and the parents, children and teachers who live there have much to tell the rest of us about what to expect next.

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