Common Core | Feature

Big Business Speaks Out for the Common Core

Big business and Common Core

Any businessman worth his salt will tell you that even the best idea or product can fail in the marketplace if it’s not backed by an effective ad campaign. Taking this truism to heart, two leading business groups are strongly backing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — an education reform that they argue is vital for the U.S. to stay competitive in the global economy.

In October, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, both based in Washington, DC, announced their intention to launch nationwide advertising to promote CCSS. Both groups have long backed the standards, which are currently being phased in by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The new academic goals are replacing state-crafted standards that many experts say have varied widely in rigor and quality.

“We know what is not working: to have standards so low, [and] to be graduating kids that can’t read,” said Cheryl Oldham, the vice president for education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents thousands of businesses across the country. In some states, students who excelled on state tests have had dismal results on the more rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “Everybody in this mobile world should have same set of high standards — whether you’re in Mississippi or Massachusetts,” Oldham said.

She said that another sign of the need for more rigor in high school is that, according to a 2012 study by the nonprofit Complete College America, half of all undergraduates at four-year colleges and 70 percent of community college students must take remedial courses. In addition, many college students who take remedial courses fail to graduate.

Meanwhile, the Common Core has been endorsed by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, many editorial boards across the country and the U.S. Department of Education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently that in the eight states with Common Core standards in place in time for this year’s NAEP, reading and math scores were higher than they had been in 2009.

Common Core in the Crossfire
The initiative’s more rigorous academic goals have an obvious appeal to the business community, Oldham says, because they contribute to economic and workforce development. The Chamber’s support for the Common Core was low-key until 2013, however, when business members at the state level saw an upswing in local resistance to the standards and urged the national umbrella organization to ramp up its policy statements and lobbying on the issue. The struggle has continued in recent months, as the Common Core has been under attack from both the left and the right of American politics.

That resistance worries Marc Tucker, the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Washington, DC. Tucker, who has studied education standards in the U.S. and abroad since the 1980s, had no role in the development of the Common Core but said he is a “cheerleader” for the initiative.

“I don’t think it’s a tempest in the teapot,” said Tucker. “I do think the Tea Party has decided this is a horse they can ride.” He says that a significant portion of Americans is afraid that their way of life is threatened, and they are very angry about that. “Folks on the far conservative right and many libertarians have managed to use the Common Core and everything that comes with it to persuade those Americans, in particular, that there is a vital threat to their liberties, coming from a quarter they didn’t expect.”

“We’re in a crossfire,” said John Engler, the president of the Business Roundtable, a business group whose members include many of the nation’s largest corporations. Speaking before a roomful of education journalists in Washington last fall, Engler, a Republican and former Michigan governor, noted that the Tea Party movement portrays the Common Core as a pet project of President Obama’s, which he said is “way off base.” Opponents have also mischaracterized the initiative, he said. “People are going to create a straw man, and go ahead and torch it down.”

Among the criticisms lobbed by conservatives is that the Common Core is a national mandate and that it imposes a specific curriculum that usurps state and local control of education. Oldham replied that the Common Core is “basically a set of high goals about things you need to do by end of first grade, second grade, etc. How you get there is totally within the purview and control of local organizations.”

Other critics of CCSS include some education researchers, with the most well-known being Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Ravitch argues that materials and assessments that have been developed to implement the Common Core are expensive, poorly designed and set up students to fail. She reportedly advised teachers and school officials in New York to boycott the Common Core initiative. And teachers unions, while supporting the standards, have many questions about whether enough funding will be provided to train teachers and to purchase high-quality curriculum materials.

It is not clear whether opposition could derail the Common Core movement. A survey last spring of state education officials conducted by the Center on Education Policy found that few expected that their states would back out of the initiative during the current school year. The officials did express concern, however, about whether they would have adequate resources to implement the Common Core. Leaders in some states that adopted the Common Core have distanced themselves, cosmetically, by not using the CCSS terminology. In a few states, legislatures have balked at funding changes in support of the standards.

NCEE’s Tucker said that there will be plenty of places where the initiative could stumble. “There is the danger that implementation will be faulty. The public will be angered if the tests are not be particularly good or are used badly. There’s some risk that blame on implementation [problems] will be laid at the feet of the Common Core itself,” he said.

Taking Action for CCSS
The Business Roundtable’s Engler believes that teachers are the most effective advocates of the Common Core, but that business can help provide “clarity” about the need for the standards. Neither his group nor the Chamber of Commerce has released details about their planned ads to promote the Common Core. “We’ve had to rework elements as the Common Core debate has changed shape and moved into different states,” said a Business Roundtable spokesperson. Engler and Thomas J. Donohue, the president the Chamber of Commerce, did coauthor an op-ed piece that was widely distributed in syndication in August. “America’s public K-12 education system isn’t making the grade,” it began.

The group behind the first national ad campaign in support of the Common Core, however, was ExxonMobil, which featured the standards in its “Let’s Solve This” ad series promoting better science and math education. According to Patrick McCarthy, the executive director of the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Common Core segment aired during television broadcasts of The Masters golf tournament in 2012 and 2013. The 30-second ad summarizes the problem and the plan, then invites viewers to join in support, concluding, “Let’s solve this.”

ExxonMobil has also supported the Common Core by implementing the academic goals in the teacher academies it supports, McCarthy said. “We have worked with those to incorporate the Common Core standards into the materials we’re giving and the things we are teaching to those teachers.”

When asked what advertising message he would recommend to convince skeptics, Tucker, the academic standards expert, suggested that Americans face a stark choice: skills or poverty. “In the modern global economy, the future of people with low skills is very bleak,” he said. “What a worker knows is the key to what he or she is going to be able to make.” He concluded that, “Our principal competitors now are providing all their kids a kind and quality of education that they used to provide only to their elite. If we don’t match their achievement, the proportion of people in our society who are poor will grow very rapidly.”

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