Families & the Community

Standards Backers Seek Out Support of Parents

By Sean Cavanagh — September 25, 2012 7 min read
Pamphlets are distributed by the PTA at a meeting held last week at Lake Forest High School in Felton, Del., to explain the Common Core State Standards to parents.
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Backers of the common-core academic standards have worked for years to secure the support of a diverse collection of elected officials, academic scholars, and school employees. Now they’re ramping up efforts to court a different and potentially critically important audience: parents.

A number of national organizations are churning out written and online materials, videos, and even public service announcements aimed at explaining the Common Core State Standards to parents, in plain language, and building support for the new guidelines, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Some of those organizations, including the National Parent Teacher Association, are also staging workshops for parents in schools, community centers, churches, colleges, YMCAs, and other settings around the country.

The PTA, which has 5 million members, says that it has already sponsored presentations for about 35,000 parents and members of the general public.

AUDIO: Public Broadcast

The Council of the Great City Schools has created a pair of public service announcements on the common core standards in English and Spanish, which are expected to hit the air soon.

Another organization engaged in the parent outreach, the Council of the Great City Schools, in Washington, plans to produce written guides to the standards, called “parent road maps,” in 10 languages—including Korean, Russian, Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin—spoken in the districts it represents. Road maps in English and Spanish are already circulating in the big-city districts served by the organization.

“This really represents a sea change for instruction in the cities,” said Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director. “We don’t think this kind of change could rightfully be done without informing parents about what we’re trying to do.”

As those efforts roll forward, the organizations are also tailoring their messages to address parents’ fears and misgivings about the common core: that its standards are too high or too low, that it will skew test scores or hurt students’ academic progress, or even that it will hinder their chances of getting admitted to college.

Jargon-Free Content?

The Common Core State Standards represent one of the most ambitious attempts to overhaul education policy in the country’s history. The basic goal is to set uniform, baseline expectations for what students across the country are expected to know in English/language arts and mathematics.

That effort has been led by a pair of Washington-based organizations that represent states, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. A pair of consortia of states are now attempting to craft tests that will match the standards.

The parent outreach has received financial support from one of the most prominent backers of the overall common-core initiative: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Council of the Great City Schools and the National PTA both say they have received Gates funding in support of their parent outreach. (Gates also supports Education Week‘s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)

While the materials produced by the various organizations have similar overall goals, they present information to parents in different ways.

The Council of the Great City Schools’ road maps are written for grades K-8 in English and K-5 in Spanish. They are similar in some respects to the PTA’s materials, but are more detailed in some areas, and more focused on the progressions in students’ academic expectations over time.

The council’s document for grade 8 math, for instance, begins by laying out the basic goals of the standards, and how they will “engage students in solving real-world problems in order to inspire greater interest in mathematics.”

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It provides parents with basic explanations of math concepts, such as linear equations, and rational and irrational numbers. It presents them with sample problems students will encounter in 8th grade and explains how that content meshes with what was covered in 7th grade, and what will come later, in high school. It offers parents tips on how to engage teachers, and it gives them advice on how to encourage children to think about math outside the classroom.

Those materials were written for mothers and fathers, not policy wonks, notes Mr. Casserly, who says the materials were stripped of terminology that would send readers “screaming into the night because of all the jargon being flung at them.”

The council has also produced video presentations designed for teachers, but are also being used by parents. In addition, it has completed public-service radio announcements in English and Spanish, and it is still finalizing plans for when those spots will air.

Selling the Public

Another group involved in parent outreach is the National Council of La Raza, a Washington organization that advocates for Latino communities and is a supporter of the standards. The organization has drafted an advocacy tool kit, which is primarily designed to help advocates build support for the common core, but can also serve as a resource for parents.

The document offers advice on “framing the problem,” as well as talking points that can be delivered to policymakers about the standards, advice for speaking to the media, and other guidance.

The goal is not merely to drop a document on parents and tell them, “you should know about the common core,” said Delia Pompa, a senior vice president at the National Council of La Raza. “It’s about showing them what it means.”

Critics of the common core view the parent-engagement efforts less benevolently.

Lindsey M. Burke, a fellow on education policy at the Heritage Foundation who opposes the standards, said the outreach ultimately seeks to convince parents to act against their best interests in supporting standards that leave far too little discretion to local districts and schools.

Parents “want a system that is locally driven, which they can affect through a vote in a school board election,” Ms. Burke said. But backers of the common core, she said, are selling “an easy rhetorical line—'Don’t you want high standards?’”

Another opponent, education author Alfie Kohn, said the organizations’ efforts to promote the standards may well shape the public’s thinking—absent some organized effort to counter that message—and he does not see that as a good thing.

“Never underestimate the power of a slick marketing campaign, when a proper explanation would otherwise elicit skepticism, or even outrage,” Mr. Kohn said.

Despite that skepticism, efforts to promote the standards have a broad reach. The PTA has been providing parents with information on the common core for three years. In addition to publishing written materials, the PTA is organizing in-person workshops for parents and the public on the standards in 10 states and a number of districts. Nearly 900 people have been put through in-depth training on how to make those presentations, said Chrystal Jones, senior state advocacy strategist for the National PTA, headquartered in Alexandria, Va.

Yvonne Johnson, the president of the Delaware state PTA, who is helping coordinate those presentations in her state, has seen a strong demand for information from across the state. The PTA could be making as many as two presentations a day on the common core over the coming two months, she said. Recently, the state chapter received nine requests for presentations during a single day.

Academic Predictability

Darlene O’Neill, a parent who went through the training and is now a common-core presenter, recently spoke before a group of military families curious about how the standards would affect them. Ms. O’Neill argued that the standards would benefit those families, who tend to move a lot, by making their children’s academic progressions more predictable, meaning they’ll be less likely to be asked to repeat materials, or jump ahead, when they show up at a new school.

Some critics have questioned whether the common core will lower standards for children, particularly those in high-achieving districts. Ms. O’Neill said she often hears the opposite concern from mothers and fathers whose children struggle academically. Other parents worry that the new standards will lower their children’s test scores.

Ms. O’Neill responds by telling parents that the standards won’t prevent students from achieving at different levels—but it will give all of them more consistent exposure to instruction and materials that can help them succeed.

The goal is to give parents “an understanding of what’s expected of them,” Ms. O’Neill said, “so that they can help their children, and feel more confident talking about their children’s classes with teachers.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org

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A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as Standards Backers Seek Out Support of Parents

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