Common Core State Standards could actually hurt academic excellence, according to Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass’s Thursday column in the Hechinger Report. While some states may benefit from the standards, others have achieved superiority without them. They pointed to Massachusetts as a primary example:

For them, the new standards represent a significant step down from the academic rigor that was the foundation of their success. Compared to Massachusetts’ previous standards, Common Core reduces the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama taught in English classes by 60 percent. Goodbye Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Edith Wharton.

In a June column for the Boston Globe, former Massachusetts Senate president Tom Birmingham said the Common Core “marks a retreat from Massachusetts’ current high standards.” Massachusett’s math standards are two years ahead those touted in the Common Core. Chieppo and Gass report that Stanford University mathematics professor James Milgram, “the only academic mathematician on Common Core’s validation committee, refused to sign off on the final draft.” He said the standards have “extremely serious failings” and “very low expectations.”

But how else can we reform America’s faulty school system? Wall Street Journal reporter Amanda Ripley believes we could learn from South Korea, as where seven percent of U.S. eighth graders are ranked “advanced,” South Korea boasts 47 percent. Most of the country’s success is due to its private tutoring academies (“hagwons”). “Sixty years ago, most South Koreans were illiterate,” Ripley writes. “Today, South Korean 15-year-olds rank No. 2 in the world in reading, behind Shanghai. The country now has a 93% high-school graduation rate, compared with 77% in the U.S.”

The entire hagwon system orbits around “rock-star teachers” like English teacher Kim Ki-hoon, who earns $4 million a year. Hagwon students choose their own teachers, thus creating incentive for teacher excellence. In addition, hagwons automatically involve parents in the academic process, sending daily text messages on children’s progress. Teachers call parents two to three times a month: “if parents aren’t engaged, that is considered a failure of the educators, not the family.” Hagwons are so successful, South Korea’s private tutors now outnumber its schoolteachers. The next step, Mr. Kim suggests, is for public schools to model themselves after hagwons: paying teachers according to performance, proactively communicating with parents, and demanding greater classroom rigor.

Could this system work in the U.S.? The hagwons’ rigorous teaching standards, while highly needed, may be difficult to institute due to our tenure system. TIME reported in 2008 that roughly 2.3 million American teachers have tenure: a system many believe “inadvertently protects incompetent teachers from being fired.” It is true more teachers are fired under the hagwon system; nevertheless, rigorous standards could bolster both teacher and student performance – our current system offers equal protection at the cost of excellence.

Many education reformers believe meritocratic systems hurt poor students. And it is true that America’s poverty gap strongly impacts academic achievement. Stanford professor Sean Reardon believes the academic achievement gap is escalating: “The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier,” he wrote in 2011. According to Reardon’s research, family income is nearly as strong as parental education in predicting child’s achievement these days. Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart confirms this: he writes of an American elite completely disassociated from the lower class. Wealth increasingly begets academic excellence and opportunity. Students lacking wealth are at a disadvantage.

But if Murray is right, the Common Core and other political measures won’t “equalize” education—nor will they create true excellence. Issues of class, society, and community must be fixed at the private community level. Parents and family, as Reardon points out, can make or break a child’s education. The virtues of hard work and perseverance must be bolstered in students’ everyday life. In addition, schools should be able to set their own standards, encourage teacher excellence, and foster parent accountability (like the hagwons). Maybe this would create the proper mix of student incentive and opportunity. The state can’t help students “transcend” their circumstances, but families and communities can.