States Try to Convince Wary Residents to Support Common Core
This article is the third in a three-part series on Common Core public outreach.
It’s not just the federal government and private foundations spending millions to promote Common Core as state and local taxpayers debate whether they really want the initiative. State governments are also spending taxpayer and foundation money in an attempt to convince taxpayers they should support Common Core.
In January 2014, Idaho’s education department received a $200,000 grant from the GE Foundation through the Foundation for Excellence in Education. GE has given FEE $3.179 million through its Chiefs for Change program to “maintain community support and advocate” for Common Core across the country.
“Most Americans don’t know much about the standards,” said Rod Gramer, chair of Idahoans for Excellence in Education, which will manage the grant. He cited polls showing approximately two-thirds of Americans have never heard of Common Core. “And there’s a lot of misinformation out there on the standards, so we feel it’s important to get good, accurate information out to parents and the public.”
They plan TV ads and have already launched online ads in local newspaper sites and social media marketing through Facebook and Twitter. Idaho received the grant because its state superintendent is a member of FEE’s Chiefs for Change, said Idaho State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath: FEE “make[s] that funding available to members of Chiefs for Change.” The other superintendents who are members hail from Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. The Common Core debate is active in more than half of these states.
Better Late than Never
McGrath and Gramer gave two different answers about why the state department of education is starting a communications push in 2014, almost four years after Common Core was published.
“We started on communications on a state level back in 2009 and 2010, during the development process, and when we were going through the adoption process, but we’ve never had the funding to do a public awareness campaign before in Idaho,” McGrath said. She noted that Idaho’s legislature designated “a little money” for outreach to school districts in 2013.
Gramer also noted that Idaho legislature approved Common Core in 2011, and the state board of education held public hearings on it.
“Sometimes it’s not enough to have the legislature,” he said. “There probably should have been some kind of campaign to help the public understand what these were. Unfortunately, I don’t think that happened across the country or in most states.”
After schools started teaching Common Core in fall 2013, parents started to hear about it and ask for more information, he noted. And “they’re picking up this bad information in the media or from those people who are not supportive of the standards.”
As examples of such, he said Common Core is a state, not federal initiative and “the standards are not related to data collection. If they were canceled tomorrow, the state would continue to collect the same data it has for several years.”
The Idaho campaign has already begun putting information out on Facebook and Twitter. Those platforms are important, because that’s where people are, McGrath said.
“We talk to legislators, but getting information into parents hands is extremely difficult,” she said. “We don’t have email addresses for every parent, but even if we did it’s hard to get them to read about [Common Core] because it’s a more in-depth issue. Parents do care about their children’s education and if we can put something out there on Facebook where they already are, they can access that and hopefully share it with their friends.”
The department knows social media effectively reaches parents and grassroots audiences because such tools were central to defeating a statewide referendum on education reforms championed by Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna, she said.
Not Just Idaho
In November 2013, Connecticut released a request for proposals for a Common Core communications push. The RFP gave a limit of $1 million for the contract. The state education department “started discussions with philanthropic organizations to start public awareness campaign,” said spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. This week, Gov. Dan Malloy abruptly reversed course and canceled the planned communications efforts, calling for a delay of teacher evaluations tied to Common Core tests and a review of the standards’ implementation. Malloy faces a close governor’s race this fall, and the standards have become a sticking point with educators, who previously backed him.
The RFP says the communications push will focus on parents, teachers, students, business leaders, and philanthropists with events, “marketing materials,” advertising, and “earned media opportunities,” which means generating free visibility in newspapers and TV.
Arizona’s department of education has released a “communications toolkit” that contains an “elevator speech,” “talking points, and messaging tailored to parents, business leaders, and students. It also includes a letter template school leaders can send to parents. Two nonprofits—the Rodel Foundation of Arizona and Expect More Arizona—have just launched a public relations campaign. It recently featured teachers giving model Common Core lessons.
One of the campaign’s first actions was to commission a poll of 500 likely Arizona voters. It found that 71 percent favored Common Core after hearing this description: “These new standards have been set to internationally competitive levels in English and math. This means that students may be more challenged by the material they study, and the tests they take will measure more advanced concepts and require students to show their work.”
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed previously had little or no idea what Common Core is.
Further Down the Road in Nevada
Nevada has already developed its game plan for promoting Common Core in the face of opposition from some residents. In December 2013, a Nevada committee convened by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) recommended “a comprehensive public communications plan” to help carry out Common Core.
“[P]arents and the business community are generally unaware of the effort to increase rigor,” the committee’s report says. “An apparently small but very vocal group of Nevadans is significantly more organized in opposing the Common Core than the Department or any school district has been to date.”
Like federal and national nonprofit public relations initiatives, Nevada’s committee recommended starting with teachers and the existing federally funded “Educator Leader Cadre” in Nevada, then raising private money to pay for a contract with a communications company.
“Teachers are the most credible and compelling messengers of education information; therefore, teachers and an organized ‘Teacher Cadre’ will become the primary spokespersons for this communication campaign,” says its “communications action plan.”
Nevada is not a member of the national testing organization, PARCC, that has already embedded similar “cadres” of more than 1,000 teachers across all its member states.
“The centerpiece of this campaign is the mobilization of a team of teachers–Teacher Cadre–who will become champions and primary spokespeople for this campaign,” says Nevada’s action plan. It says it will, from January to June 2014, “Aggressively promote and dispatch members of the Teacher Cadre to address groups throughout the state.”
State Employees, Union Officials Work Together
Although the goal is to raise private funds for this effort, the plan lists a raft of state employees who will be incorporated into this Common Core communications team, including the governor, communications staff from the state department of education and several school districts, state legislators, and the higher education chancellor. It also recommends drafting the communications expertise of the state teachers union and the union of the nation’s fifth-largest school district, in Clark County.
The plan says most Nevadans don’t know about Common Core and should hear about its benefits: “The most important audience to reach is the ‘moveable middle.’”
It targets teachers, legislators, and education administrators as “the most critical ‘A Level’ audiences, who should be reached before parents, students, and the media.
The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) is using a $15,000 grant “to identify and train 20-25 teachers…to discuss issues and concerns about implementation of the new standards. These teachers have met twice already…and are available immediately to assist with communication efforts,” the plan says,
The Clark County Education Association “has access to a national grant that will allow them to create a cadre of teachers to cover the southern region of the state” to push Common Core, the plan says. “CCEA and [the Nevada Department of Education] have already discussed how to coordinate this cadre with other planned efforts.”
It’s typical for the Nevada Department of Education to work closely with the state and Clark County teachers unions, said Victor Joecks, executive vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Because NSEA has managed to separate teacher evaluations from Common Core test scores, he said, it’s not likely they will reverse position to criticize Common Core like unions have begun to do across the country. This month, the nation’s largest union local, in New York City, issued a statement blasting the implementation of Common Core and demanding changes.
“There are citizen groups pushing back [in Nevada], just not the traditional power players,” Joecks said.
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