Published Online: December 1, 2009

PTA Launches Campaign Backing Common Standards

A national organization, with philanthropic backing, is launching a campaign to build support for common academic standards among a potentially influential constituency: parents.

The National Parent Teacher Association has received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to begin organizing parental support for setting more uniform academic expectations in four states: Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

The undertaking is one of the most visible examples to date of how backers of the standards endeavor, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, are trying to lay a foundation for those documents’ adoption—and their eventual use—in school districts and individual classrooms.

The National PTA, which has 5.2 million members, could expand its efforts beyond those four states to other parts of the country by the middle of next year.

In debates over education policy, parents tend to be a “forgotten voice at the table,” said Erin Hart, the director of strategic alliances, partnerships, and programs for the Chicago-based National PTA. “We’re interested in holding the school districts accountable and being the collective voice of the community that says, ‘This is important.’ ”

Forty-eight states have agreed to work on creating more consistent academic standards through the common-core project. The venture is being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, two Washington organizations that work closely with states.

The goal is to devise a more coherent and consistent set of academic expectations for students around the country, in contrast to the hodge-podge of standards set by states today. Draft standards for college and career readiness in mathematics and English/language arts were released this fall, and a first version of K-12 guidelines is expected in the next month or two, the NGA said this week.

Yet many questions, and potential obstacles, remain. It’s still unclear whether state officials will agree to adopt the final standards document, particularly given states’ heavy political and financial investments in their own standards and assessment systems.

The National PTA’s campaign will attempt to win over policymakers, and the public, on a number of fronts, Ms. Hart said.

Its state affiliates and local members will attempt to persuade boards of education—the decisionmaking body on standards in most states—to adopt the documents, Ms. Hart said. It will also urge its members to make a broader case for standards among parents and school communities, at public events and through word of mouth, she said. In addition, PTA members will ask state, district, and school officials to take steps to ensure that the standards are used to improve instruction, by supporting teachers through professional development and other means, Ms. Hart added.

The four states were chosen partly because their PTA memberships are active and have shown an ability to mobilize behind a cause, Ms. Hart said. The majority of the National PTA’s members are parents, though they also include teachers and students. The organization has affiliates in all 50 states. The Florida PTA has 345,000 members; Georgia, 310,000; North Carolina, 205,000; and New Jersey, 205,000.

While the NGA is grateful for the support of the parents’ group, it has left decisions about which states to target to the PTA, said Ilene Berman, a program director with the NGA’S Center for Best Practices. That said, NGA officials are enthusiastic about trying to build support for standards in relatively populous states with a mix of rural and urban districts.

Local Sales Pitch

The effort could offer “proof-points for how [we] talk about this in other communities,” Ms. Berman said.

“PTA members are key to the success of any education reform,” she added. “PTAs are seen as a trusted source of information, working with the goals of schools in mind.”

The campaign to promote common standards at the local level could prove successful—but that doesn’t mean the overall effort will be good for students or schools, argued Nel Noddings, an author and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, who is critical of the multistate effort.

Backers of the standards venture, while “well intentioned,” are wrongly fixated on college preparation and testing, rather than more-urgent needs, such as getting more students to complete high school and fixing struggling schools, Ms. Noddings said.

“We’re all for standards, but we have different ideas of what higher standards are,” Ms. Noddings said. Many of the current standards arguments amount to “propaganda,” she maintained, yet those arguments “may be enough to get people to go for it” at the state and local level.

CCSSO and NGA officials have said previously that they will seek help from many organizations with a strong reach in schools and districts, such as teachers’ unions, in promoting and implementing the common-core standards. The National PTA is one such group, Ms. Berman said.

PTA officials note that their support for voluntary standards is not new. As far back as 1981, the organization released a statement backing such standards if they were “derived by consensus at the state and local levels.”

The PTA campaign seems to align well with the stated goals of the Gates Foundation. The philanthropy, based in Seattle, has poured billions of dollars into school improvement efforts across the K-12 spectrum. The foundation also provides funding to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization of which Education Week is a part.

Among its many education ventures, the Gates Foundation has in recent years financed a public-awareness campaign about education, called Stand Up, and another, ED in 08, which sought to build interest in education during the 2008 presidential campaign, with mixed results. Last year, Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corp. chairman and foundation co-chair, said that ED in 08 had not met his expectations.

The foundation also last year announced that it would refocus its high school grantmaking on promoting higher standards for college readiness, in addition to improved teacher quality and innovations to help struggling students. In a document describing its grant strategy, the philanthropy called for setting “fewer, clearer, and higher” standards for guiding instruction—language that the CCSSO and the NGA use in describing their work. At the time, in fact, Vicki L. Phillips, the director of education for the foundation’s College Ready in the United States program, said the organization sought to promote a “common core of standards” across states. ("Gates Revamps Its Strategy for Giving to Education," Nov. 11, 2008.)

The Gates Foundation, among others, also has directly contributed funding for the common-core standards project.

Ms. Phillips, in an interview this week, said the multistate standards effort could have a “transformative” power on teaching, assessments, and other areas of education. Yet its success will likely hinge on organizations like the PTA working in states and districts to explain why good standards matter.

“Everyone knows the PTA at the local level, but not everyone knows its collective power” nationally, Ms. Phillips said. For common standards to take hold, “it will take local communities to get involved.”

Vol. 29, Issue 14

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