Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

A Point/Counterpoint Approach to Common Core Communication

By Jim Dunn, APR, Past President of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)/Current Communication Consultant

The battle lines seem to be drawn concerning Common Core State Standards.

On one side are the likes of media personalities Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, billionaires Charles and David Koch, the Republican National Committee, the Tea Party, and a whole bevy of angry people who feel like their country has taken a very wrong turn.

On the other side of the debate, and solidly pro-Common Core, are seventy-plus percent of teachers nationwide, conservative political leaders such as former Republican Governor Jeb Bush, 45 state boards of education, the National Chamber of Commerce and a horde of bewildered education advocates who thought their country, at last, was going to improve K-12 education.

Boards of education, superintendents and school communications professionals now are caught squarely in the middle of an intense political/ideological battle that could derail years of thoughtful efforts to improve U.S. education. The grassroots consortium of professionals who led the development of Common Core standards – from superintendents to teachers to national education experts – believed they were on track to deliver a K-12 education model that would ensure every United States high school graduate is able to compete with anyone in the world to find a worthy job and/or succeed in college.

More Communication Needed Now

The frustration of those who oppose Common Core is both palpable, and in some cases, understandable. Its launch in 2009 did not include a full-scale communications plan to let all stakeholders know just what it is, and perhaps even more important, what it “is not.” Legislators, parents and even some teachers had never heard of Common Core State Standards until several months ago. Furthering the confusion was the link of Common Core to an Obama Administration economic stimulus package called “Race to the Top.” “Race to the Top” focused on college and career learning, offering significant financial incentives to the states. To access the stimulus funding, Common Core, in some cases, was adopted by state boards of education, but not by the legislators who would have to provide funding. CCSS flew under the radar. Honest conversations and explanations of the standards, their development and methodology, and how they provide substantially better student outcomes have just recently begun.

Confounding the issue is that some of CCSS’s most fervent supporters are questioning the use of high-stakes testing, a key component in CCSS, to evaluate both student learning and teacher effectiveness. A consortium of education professional organizations, as well as several teacher unions, are now calling for a one-year moratorium on implementation of CCSS high-stakes tests.

What Is Best for Kids?

Supporters of Common Core also are up in arms, and for good reason. The ideas and motivations behind Common Core are now 10 years old. Basing education outcomes on “standards” is routine education protocol, begun by Republicans and conservatives under the George W. Bush administration. In fact, it is safe to say education has always had “standards.” The “ideas” for connecting educational success to testing, merit pay, rigorous and relevant learning, and accountability all came out of conservative think tank proposals. As a result, the complaints of Common Core opponents, to those who see great value in the program, come across as a political agenda, and not aligned with the fundamental adage, “what is best for the kids?”

What follows is a point-counterpoint format to help you learn more about Common Core rhetoric in the court of public opinion.

  • Critic’s Point: Common Core will allow the government access to our children’s unique identifying information. This information, once collected, might be sold to be used by others (marketing and sales companies) for who knows what?

A Counter-Point: Common Core opponents are creating unfounded fears around the sharing of student information. Proponents claim shared information will be general information that helps school districts better support a child’s learning; and NONE will be sold for any reason.

  • Critic’s Point: Members of the Common Core Validation Committee didn’t agree with it and didn’t sign off on it. That’s a sign that this is a bad idea and states should reconsider accepting it.

A Counter-Point: Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea. The majority of leaders on the Validation Committee DID agree with it, which is what got us to this point in its adoption.

  • Critic’s Point: We can’t fund implementing the Common Core in a way that will truly benefit students.

A Counter-Point: Even with tight budgets, money could be found or reallocated for Common Core purposes. CCSS implementation is less than one percent of the $500 billion spent on education right now.

  • Critic’s Point: The standards we have now are fine. America is doing okay in education.

A Counter-Point: It is documented that the consistently low standards now permeating our education system are across-the-board damaging to our children’s futures. According to Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, Common Core State Standards are “rigorous and they are traditional... one might even say they are conservative. They expect students to know their math facts, to read the nation’s founding documents, and evaluate evidence and come to independent judgments. In all of these ways they are miles better than three-quarters of the state standards they replaced – standards that hardly deserved the name, and often pushed the left-wing drivel that Common Core haters say they abhor.”

  • Critic’s Point: We already know the Common Core State Standards won’t work because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) didn’t work. There will still be gaps in what students learn from place to place.

A Counter-Point: The Common Core State Standards are not the same thing as NCLB. For example, NCLB did not address education between states and was short-sighted in responding to the unique challenges students with special needs or students learning English as a second language would have in achieving at the same level as a traditional student. The Common Core’s ultimate goal is to prepare all students for success in college or in their career, whereas under NCLB, each state had its own goal which varied widely. Although the Common Core does not solve some of the ills in today’s education, it is a step in the right direction and is an improvement to many of today’s education practices.

  • Critic’s Point: New testing expectations for the Common Core will confuse educators and students since they are so different from what we expect now.

A Counter-Point: Although the tests will be different, it is better to get the ball rolling than to lose even more time waiting for the right moment. There won’t be one. The best thing to do is to go ahead and take what you learn to make it better. Many educators believe that success should be measured in a variety of ways, not just in one standardized test. The results of the tests that will be implemented in this first trial of the Common Core should not be the “be-all-and-end-all” of determining whether learning is taking place in a meaningful way through the new standards.

  • Critic’s Point: The Common Core State Standards are an experiment we are subjecting our children to without parents being able to give informed consent.

A Counter-Point: Educational standards vary drastically from community to community as it stands now, and they all change based on new information and new practices. This reform is another example of that, based on 20 years of good research, field testing, efficacy testing and best practices for education. To improve, we need to change.

  • Critic’s Point: Local control is taken away from educators, local officials, and parents in terms of defining success and the curriculum through the Common Core State Standards.

A Counter-Point: During the inception of the Common Core State Standards, the general public was given a chance to comment on them, and they did. The website for the Common Core State Standards received more than 10,000 comments as feedback to the draft version of the movement. Educators nationwide overwhelmingly support the Common Core, with 77% of educators in favor of it. Parents like it too (70%), and among people who have educated themselves on the standards, they are not concerned with what the standards require of their local education programs.

  • Critic’s Point: The CCSS have been copyrighted by the groups that spearheaded them, the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers, so local educators don’t have the ability to change them if they aren’t working in their area.

A Counter-Point: The standards are designed to be tweaked and refined in order to best educate all American students. These groups invited discourse and collaboration in creating the standards. It stands to reason that they will continue to listen as changes are suggested. Also, standards are separate from curriculum. The standards simply provide a framework in which local educators should work, but how they educate their students is completely up to them.

  • Critic’s Point: The Obama administration has had some flaws. They should not be entrusted to teach our youth.

A Counter-Point: This isn’t a federal program. It is supported in part federally, through financial incentives for states that adopted it, but the federal government is not, and has never been, in charge of it.

  • Critic’s Point: People barely know what the Common Core is since it was not communicated well from the beginning.

A Counter-Point: Although there was little discussion about Common Core in the beginning, it is now a hot-button topic of debate, despite people still not knowing much about it. Nearly 80 percent of educators, those who have become the most well-versed in it since it directly impacts their jobs, support it.

  • Critic’s Point: Supporting the Common Core allowed states access to federal funds from Race to the Top and waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If it isn’t a federal program, why is the federal government getting into it?

A Counter-Point: The federal government has a long history of incentivizing the programs it believes in, regardless of whether or not it is directly involved in the program’s implementation. Just because the government supports it through incentives doesn’t mean that it has a say in it.

  • Critic’s Point: The Common Core is tied to high-stakes testing meant to measure student achievement and teacher success. Now that Common Core supporters are concerned that the measurement tools are not ready, they don’t want the outcomes from the Common Core experiment to count. Isn’t this just trying to get away from accountability?

A Counter-Point: In order to get a true read from any assessment, a measurement tool must be both reliable and valid. The tests that have been designed have not been reviewed enough to ensure that they meet either criterion. Thus, they must be tweaked and analyzed to be sure that they are measuring what they are intended to measure. Once the tool is refined, its feedback will be taken into account. Until then, we should focus on getting the kinks out of this new program without the added pressure of attempting to “teach to a test” that doesn’t measure success for teachers or students.

Though grassroots support for CCSS is strong among educators and those who have actually reviewed the standards, the opposition to CCSS is making headway. Of the 45 states that adopted the Common Core English-language arts and math standards, nine are, at least, having second thoughts. Some states are seeking to slow implementation while others are trying to repeal the standards altogether.

Legislation pending in some states would prevent adoption of standards in other subjects, such as social studies or science. The only states not to adopt the standards are Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. Minnesota adopted the language arts but not the math standards. States that are seeing pushback to the standards include: Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.

In Conclusion

Finally, though the word “outcomes” is rarely seen in this debate, it provides a suitable conclusion to a point-counterpoint analysis. Our children need outcomes, and they need them now. They need to leave high school prepared for work or college. If we want our children to be accountable, we need to be accountable ourselves. It is time to move forward. These new standards can be a very small first step to ensure all students have an equal chance to develop the skills and knowledge they need for personal success. How students learn these standards, and how they are taught, is up to local districts, parents and teachers. Education in the United States has to start looking, and moving, forward. What we are doing now is not working. Common Core State Standards can help.

This post originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of the NSPRA Counselor. Reposted with permission.

For additional resources on Common Core communications, visit NSPRA's Common Core Communication Network. (Some resources are available only to NSPRA members, but many are available to the general public.)

Image by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Mann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons