Common Core Supporters Firing Back

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 14, 2013 9 min read
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Supporters of the Common Core State Standards are moving to confront increasingly high-profile opposition to the standards at the state and national levels by rallying the private sector and initiating coordinated public relations and advertising campaigns as schools continue implementation.

In states such as Michigan and Tennessee, where common-core opponents feel momentum is with them, state education officials, the business community, and allied advocacy groups are ramping up efforts to define and buttress support for the standards—and to counter what they say is misinformation.

Supporters assert that the common core remains on track in the bulk of the states that have adopted it, all but four at last count.

But the pressure is on for common-core champions to make sure their message gets through. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington last month that the private sector had to snap out of what he portrayed as its lethargy and to prevent states from reverting to inferior standards, as he contended states did a decade ago under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I don’t understand why the business community is so passive when these kinds of things happen,” he said.

On May 1, former Michigan Gov. John Engler—now the president of the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of business leaders—took to the radio show of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a fellow Republican, to defend the standards.

And soon thereafter, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, another Republican, reiterated his common-core support in an appearance in that state with Secretary Duncan.

“States are standing up for what’s right, and organizations are supporting them,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which led the effort to develop and promote the standards along with the National Governors Association. “There are several types of organizations that are doing that.”

‘Start at Square One’

Critics have made several arguments against the common core. Some say the standards are being crammed into classrooms by the federal government in a power grab of questionable legality. They and others say that the common core is a national curriculum in disguise, that claims about its rigor are inflated, or that it sets unrealistic expectations.

Criticisms also have arisen about the testing load the standards require, the timetable for implementation, and the pace of professional development for teachers.

See Also

Read related story, “Impact on Waivers, Grants Mulled in Common-Core Pushback.”

Participating states are now implementing the standards, which cover English/language arts and math, and tests based on the common core are slated to begin in the 2014-15 academic year.

Perhaps the most prominent pushback has been in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, is expected to sign a bill that would require a fiscal and policy review of the standards.

Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee are among the other states that, to varying degrees, have dealt with growing political opposition to the common core. Conservative organizations and tea party groups have pushed bills opposing the standards at the state level, but groups skeptical about the role of standardized tests and the private sector in education have also made inroads among progressives.

State Brush Fires

The Common Core State Standards have sparked debate and legislative battles in a number of states, including:

Alabama: Multiple legislative attempts have been made to derail the common core in this state. Gaining the most traction was a bill that would have required the state board of education to drop the standards. It was approved by the Senate education committee, but Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, a Republican, killed the bill.

Indiana: Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, is expected to sign legislation initiating a fiscal and policy review of the common core. Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz says the bill means Indiana’s previous standards would remain alongside the common core. The state board of education has reiterated its support for the common standards; Gov. Pence can replace six of the boards’ 10 members this summer.

Michigan: The House of Representatives approved a budget last month that would defund implementation of the common core. However, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, reiterated his support for the standards in an appearance with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on May 6.

Ohio: Groups such as Ohioans Against Common Core and Education Freedom Ohio have held public meetings in recent months to denounce the standards and stepped up pressure on state lawmakers to force Ohio to drop them.

Tennessee: Local groups critical of the common core have held meetings in opposition, sometimes feature opponents from national groups. In support of the standards, the state education department has published a history of the common core in the state and basic information about the standards. Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a group drawn from the business and philanthropic communities, has also intensified its efforts to support the standards.

SOURCE: Education Week

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who says she continues to support the common core in principle, presented a critique on April 30 based on concerns about how quickly and effectively the standards are being implemented. In a speech to the Association for a Better New York, she called for a delay in attaching high stakes to results from tests based on the common core. Teachers should have more time to understand the standards and adapt instruction to fit them, she said.

Even as supporters say common core remains on track, they say they are taking its opponents seriously.

When the Tennessee education department started getting basic but increasingly frequent questions about the standards—along the lines of “Is the federal government now telling us what textbooks we have to purchase?"—supporters saw the need to act, said state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman.

“We realized that we had to start at square one and be able to start telling people, ‘OK, this is the story of Tennessee’s engagement with the common core,’ ” Mr. Huffman said.

In recent weeks, there have been renewed efforts in Tennessee from the State Collaborative to Reform Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group led by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist that promotes college and career readiness, to counter foes of the common core in the state. Opponents began holding public forums last month where representatives from anti-common-core groups made their case.

On April 30, Score announced that more than 200 groups had signed on to its Expect More, Achieve More Coalition. The coalition, begun by SCORE in 2009 and revived last year to support the common core, includes state businesses and school districts and stresses what it says is the importance of the common core.

The coalition has geared up a social-media campaign to promote the standards. It also released a fact sheet and history that says in part, “Standards do not dictate curriculum (e.g., textbooks and reading lists) or prescribe a method of instruction.”

Mr. Huffman said he’s also lobbied to shore up common-core support among state legislators.

In an op-ed essay earlier this month in The Tennessean, in Nashville, state Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said the standards would reverse the state’s history of having students perform well on state assessments but poorly on national tests that ask more of them.

Continue the Collaboration

States should remember how they collaborated to develop the standards and work to share best practices about keeping the standards politically viable and putting them into effect, argued Dane Linn, a vice president of the Business Roundtable who also oversaw work on the common core at the NGA.

“It’s important to be patient, to not be alarmist, and to support states as they implement these standards,” Mr. Linn said.

Still, the private sector is responding to what some supporters see as ominous developments.

For example, Business Leaders for Michigan, a nonprofit group of private-sector leaders in that state, sent an open letter to state political leaders on May 2, urging them to stand by the new standards, after the state House of Representatives passed a budget last month that would defund the common core.

“Adopting the common core gives us even a better way of seeing how well we’re doing. And for the amount of money we’re spending on public education, we should want that,” Doug Rothwell, the president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said in an interview.

Both Mr. Rothwell and Mr. Linn said they were somewhat surprised by the ability of what they deemed small groups of opponents to get political traction. But groups outside the private sector are being proactive as well—before Mr. Snyder’s May 6 remarks, Education Trust’s Midwest affiliate, which advocates for a focus on transparent data and student achievement, also stressed in a May 2 statement the broad support for the standards, including the state PTA.

But supporters also were jolted by the Republican National Committee’s decision last month to oppose the standards, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the pro-common-core Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

“Some people have suddenly discovered that they might need a few people with at least faint Republican credentials besides [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush to say that the common core is a good thing,” he said. He added that he thought conservative efforts in state legislatures posed the bigger threat to the common standards, compared with opposition from the political left.

Drawing Connections

Standards supporters are also becoming more active on the airwaves.

Stand for Children Indiana, a pro-common-core group, which supports broad early-education opportunities and charter schools, released two different 30-second TV advertisements, one on March 5 and another on April 16, defending the standards. The campaign also included radio spots.

A spokesman for the group, Jay Kenworthy, declined to disclose how much it spent on the ads and said it hadn’t decided whether to renew the public relations push when common-core hearings get underway in Indiana this summer.

That state is also ground zero for a pro-common-core argument aimed at a liberal audience: that many of the loudest common-core opponents hold other political views that the audience would find abhorrent.

For example, Larry Grau, the director of the Indiana affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, wrote on the group’s blog April 23 that GOP Sen. Scott Schneider wants schools to teach creationism and has sought to make enforcement of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act a felony. DFER Indiana has also used language that warned about “bedfellows” in the anti-common-core movement that could cause someone to say, “I hate myself for this in the morning.” Mr. Grau said he wanted the group’s rhetoric to be “a little edgy.”

He argued that Democrats suspicious of other policy proposals, like vouchers, should not let those views lead them to lash out at the common core. “They’re not thinking before they’re saying who they’re partnering with on the common core,” Mr. Grau said in an interview.

Others make an economic argument in favor of the standards. Legislators weighing whether to ditch the common core should keep in mind that education technology providers already have been designing products based on the standards, said Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia who is now president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which works to improve high school graduation rates.

He argued it would end up costing states more to backtrack than to implement the common core.

Opposition Persists

The federal government has provided $360 million to support two consortia of states developing common-core-based assessments.

But without new federal enticements to follow through and implement the common core, supporters don’t have much gas left in the tank, argued Jim Stergios, the president of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which opposes the standards and has sent representatives to forums in Tennessee and elsewhere.

“Michigan wasn’t even on our radar screen,” he said. “A lot of representatives and senators are starting to feel the heat.”

Parents, in particular, are also catching on to the “propaganda” coming from corporate and foundation-based common-core supporters, said Julie Woestehoff, a co-founder of the Chicago-based Parents Across America, a progressive-oriented group that is concerned about the common core’s standardized-testing requirements. (She is also executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, located in Chicago.) “What we’re seeing is people with a lot of money throwing money at a PR problem that they see happening,” she said.

But Mr. Minnich of the CCSSO maintains that there is a broad consensus in support of the common core that isn’t fracturing and that wants implementation to continue.

On this front, the GE Foundation has traveled to districts to discuss work on the standards, and has helped the Erie school district in Pennsylvania, for example, travel to receive additional common-core training. (The GE Foundation provides grant support for Education Week‘s coverage of college- and career-ready standards’ implementation.)

“Implementation is critical. ... Simply adopting a set of standards isn’t going to make things better,” Mr. Minnich said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Standards Supporters Firing Back


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