Business Groups Crank Up Defense of Common Core

By Sean Cavanagh — September 24, 2013 4 min read
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Members of the business community are being urged to take up the fight to defend the Common Core State Standards in statehouses and in local communities, as the ambitious academic guidelines come under attack from an unlikely set of detractors on both the political left and the right.

That message was delivered most directly at a recent forum for business leaders held by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backs the standards. The group has sought to combat what it sees as myths about the common core—such that they are being directed by the federal government, or that they attempt to set detailed prescriptions for daily classroom lessons.

Leaders from Intel Corp., Cisco Systems, and the ExxonMobil Foundation, at a Sept. 17 event held at the chamber’s headquarters, described their efforts to promote the standards through different strategies, including coast-to-coast advertising campaigns and outreach to company employees and parents in the overall community. That salesmanship will continue in coming months, according to officials for those companies.

Patrick McCarthy, the executive director of the ExxonMobil Foundation, said critics of the standards, which have been adopted in all but four states, had made headway among state legislators and others, largely because their arguments had gone unchallenged.

“These policymakers are hearing from tea-party activists, from anti-common-core activists,” said Mr. McCarthy. “All they’re hearing is why the common core is bad. ... Policymakers are eager to hear from [the business community]. They want to hear the other side of the story.”

Even so, Mr. McCarthy did not suggest that taking on opposition to the common core would be easy.

He cited the strong reaction ExxonMobil has received since it began a high-profile effort to sell the common core through a series of nationwide television ads. For every 100 emails the company has received in response to the ads, about 99 were negative, he estimated.

“There’s a lot of them that say, ‘How could you do this? How could you support the common core?' " Mr. McCarthy said.

Debates in a ‘Vacuum’

Despite the friction, ExxonMobil will continue to run TV ads, to write op-eds in newspapers, and to aggressively lobby state legislators in support of the standards, he said.

Carlos Contreras, the director of U.S. education for Intel, said his company has been discussing the importance of the common core at forums for its employees, with the idea that those workers will become ambassadors for the standards.

But those efforts have also offered reminders of the tough road ahead. Surveys of Intel employees show that roughly 50 percent of them were not familiar with the common core. And a small but substantial portion of those workers appear to be adamantly against them, Mr. Contreras said.

Mr. Contreras advised the business leaders in attendance to make sure their representatives in states and cities are familiar enough with the standards to defend them.

The message “has to be delivered locally,” Mr. Contreras said, adding: “When there’s a vacuum, [bad information] comes in.”

But Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which has been critical of the common core, said it was wrong to assume that the public, or elected officials, would be swayed by arguments put forward by business organizations like the chamber. If anything, the public is likely to be wary of “Washington-based special interests” advocating for standards that, in Mr. Stergios’ view, weaken state and local control of schools.

No Impact?

Evidence that business pitches to the public can fall flat could be found in the reaction to ExxonMobil’s pro-common-core TV ads, which made “not a whit of difference,” in shaping opinion, Mr. Stergios said.

Overall, “I don’t think it will have any impact whatsoever,” he said of national business groups’ touting benefits of the common core.

Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, told attendees at the chamber event that complaints about the standards had set the stage for “a real battle” in his state.

Mr. Haslam, a proponent of the common core, said opposition had come from both the far right and far left, creating a “fairly unique push from both ends.” He described the standards as part of a broader effort to give parents honest information about academic expectations his state is setting for schools and students.

“The way we address [criticism] is we keep talking about what it is,” Mr. Haslam said of the common core, “and what it’s not.”

The common core also came up when another major business organization that backs the standards, the Business Roundtable, met for its quarterly meeting, also in Washington. President Barack Obama, whose administration has provided funding to consortia of states to align tests to the common core, addressed the group Sept. 18 and thanked its members for backing the standards.

In a speech focused mostly on economic and budget issues, Mr. Obama touted the standards as an opportunity to ensure “that every young person in America has the opportunity to get prepared for the kinds of jobs that are going to exist in the 21st century,” according to a transcript of the meeting, which the organization closed to the media.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as Business Organizations Rally on Common Core


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