The Excellent But False Messaging of the Common Core Standards

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Common Dreams

The Excellent But False Messaging of the Common Core Standards

Have you ever wondered about the amazingly effective campaign to sell the Common Core standards to the media, the business community, and the public? How did it happen that advocates for the standards used the same language, the same talking points, the same claims, no matter where they were located? The talking points sounded poll-tested because they were. The language was the same because it came from the same source. The campaign to have “rigorous,” “high standards” that would make ALL students “college and career-ready” and “globally competitive” was well planned and coordinated. There was no evidence for these claims but repeated often enough in editorials and news stories and in ads by major corporations, they took on the ring of truth. Even the new stories that reported on controversies between advocates and opponents of the Common Core, used the rhetoric of the advocates to describe the standards.

This was no accident.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post reported that the Hunt Institute in North Carolina received more than $5 million from the Gates Foundation to organize support for the brand-new, unknown, untested Common Core standards. Organizing support meant creating the message as well as mobilizing messengers, many of whom were also funded by the Gates Foundation.

In Layton’s blockbuster article about how the Gates Foundation underwrote the rapid adoption of “national standards” by spreading millions of dollars strategically, this remarkable story was included:

“The foundation, for instance, gave more than $5 million to the University of North Carolina-affiliated Hunt Institute, led by the state’s former four-term Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, to advocate for the Common Core in statehouses around the country.

“The grant was the institute’s largest source of income in 2009, more than 10 times the size of its next largest donation. With the Gates money, the Hunt Institute coordinated more than a dozen organizations — many of them also Gates grantees — including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, National Council of La Raza, the Council of Chief State School Officers, National Governors Association, Achieve and the two national teachers unions.

“The Hunt Institute held weekly conference calls between the players that were directed by Stefanie Sanford, who was in charge of policy and advocacy at the Gates Foundation. They talked about which states needed shoring up, the best person to respond to questions or criticisms and who needed to travel to which state capital to testify, according to those familiar with the conversations.

“The Hunt Institute spent $437,000 to hire GMMB, a strategic communications firm owned by Jim Margolis, a top Democratic strategist and veteran of both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. GMMB conducted polling around standards, developed fact sheets, identified language that would be effective in winning support and prepared talking points, among other efforts.

“The groups organized by Hunt developed a “messaging tool kit” that included sample letters to the editor, op-ed pieces that could be tailored to individuals depending on whether they were teachers, parents, business executives or civil rights leaders.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the advocates for the Common Core standards have the same rhetoric, the same claims, no matter where they are, because the campaign was well organized and well messaged.

What the campaign did not take into account was the possibility of pushback, the possibility that the very lack of public debate and discussion would sow suspicion and controversy. What the advocates forgot is that the democratic way of making change may be slow and may require compromise, but it builds consensus. The Common Core standards, thanks to Gates’ largesse, skipped the democratic process, imposed new standards on almost every state, bypassing the democratic process, and is now paying the price of autocratic action in a democratic society.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  Her previous books and articles about American education include: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, (Simon & Schuster, 2000); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003); The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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