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Common Core rollout reflects poor messaging

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Public relations lesson number one: control the message. After 25 years of working in daily and weekly newspapers, I’ve learned a lot about people and mass communications. Once an organization or group loses message control, things can spiral out of control quickly, and we’ve seen this occur with the new Common Core State Standards.

Our state joined others in adopting the Common Core State Standards. The idea was to have an apples-to-apples comparison between states of what our children’s proficiencies were. As it stood, states set their own standards of learning and as late as 2007 Tennessee got a rating of an “F” for “Truth in Advertising” about student proficiencies from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Common Core Standards originated at the state level through the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2008, eventually leading to the rollout of those standards across most of the 50 states. It was designed to offer a look at how children were faring across all states comparatively.

Without including the public in the discourse and without doing a very good job of messaging, our state, under the leadership of then-Governor Phil Bredesen and then-Education Commissioner Tim Webb, joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative and Tennessee became part of what has become a controversial program.

I’ve got my own concerns about the program, but many reasons the critics cite when attacking CCSS are wildly inaccurate. There are reasons to be against Common Core — my concern is the enormity of the cost of implementation — but when I hear of scenarios that sound more like distopian science fiction films than reality, I am struck with how supporters of the program lost their message to hysteria.

Full disclosure: My wife is an educator in the Tipton County School System and she trains teachers and administrators in Common Core State Standards for the state Department of Education. I’ve gotten an inside look at how Common Core works and I’m convinced that children are not having their eye movements watched by cameras, that they’re not being indoctrinated by socialist manifestos and their data is not being mined or used to some nefarious end as part of Common Core.

Common Core State Standards are objectives — goals, if you will — that our children need to attain in order to achieve an accepted level of proficiency. These goals are somewhat general, like being able to read and analyze a work of non-fiction or find the area of a right triangle. Nowhere in those “core standards,” is a requirement that children read objectionable material.

Those allegations came about as a result of training materials and sample texts selected to train teachers in how to work toward the standards. Books like “Freakonomics,” a somewhat controversial book, are used in training sessions to show teachers how that text and others can be used to teach the standards. But at the end of the day, teachers can make up their own minds about what materials to use. 

My wife, who still works as a classroom teacher, is not deviating much at all from the sources she used before. She’s just sure to use those same sources to ensure she’s teaching the skills outlined in Common Core.

One Davidson County father told me his children were being made to read salacious materials “because of Common Core.” That allegation is simply not true, or if it is, it’s the teacher’s or school’s or school system’s fault for making it so. Curriculum choices are left to the teachers, unless the school or the school system adopts a curriculum. Remember, Common Core is a standard or a goal, not the material used to attain it. If objectionable material is selected, it’s someone’s fault for selecting it — meaning the teacher, principal, school system superintendent or school board — because Common Core doesn’t mandate what materials are used.

CCSS makes recommendations and offers sample texts, but no educator would be worth his or her salt if he or she arbitrarily went along with those recommendations without considering the impact it would have on students or the community at large.

A ninth and 10th grade writing standard is to “conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” 

It doesn’t say that students have to read “Dreaming in Cuban,” a sexually-charged novel. Reading it — or not — is a curriculum choice that’s in the hands of local schools and teachers. If the teacher or school system decides to use it, blame should be placed where it belongs: on the teacher or school system.

I’ve seen the money being thrown into CCSS and given the state of the American economy, I have concerns about our state’s and our nation’s spending on another educational fix-all. Does anybody remember “No Child Left Behind” for goodness sakes? Still, I don’t fear for the future of my children thanks to Common Core — as long as teachers and school systems exercise a modicum of good sense and taste and teach the standards using age-appropriate materials. And there’s nothing in Common Core that would prevent this.

The opposition to CCSS is shrill because of a public relations breakdown that occurred when these standards were adopted. Folks arguing these “worst case scenarios” of indoctrination are controlling the messaging. 

Our newsroom is trying to separate Common Core fact from fiction, but to be honest, if the Tennessee Department of Education under Tim Webb and now under Kevin Huffman were message and media savvy, we wouldn’t be forced to fix these misperceptions.

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