Our success in passing school reforms has had more to do with prevailing in legislative bodies than prevailing in the public arena.
This has led to a dangerous neglect of the need for marketing. We now are paying the price for that as our opponents vigorously fight back, defining reform as an attack on public schools that is degrading the quality of education. That this isn’t true doesn’t matter. Sound bites often trump data.
Unlike traditional public schools, we do not have a longstanding base of traditional support to fall back on.
The parents of kids in charter schools support charter schools. The parents of kids in voucher schools support vouchers. But they simply are availing themselves of an opportunity, not embracing the movement responsible for it.
Indiana charter schools may well be the best performing charters in the nation. Last year, an additional 207 Indiana schools received A grades from the state.
But what good did that do Tony Bennett?
Complicating this picture is that reform has been largely a conservative movement, with the major beneficiaries being a Democratic constituency. The initial impetus was to pressure public schools into better serving low-income children. Republican parents didn’t really care and Democratic politicians certainly weren’t going to jump on the bandwagon given the powerful role of teacher unions in their party.
While we point to NAEP scores or literacy data, the other side launches into clichés about teaching to the test, war on teachers, traumatizing children, privatizing education, turning our children over to for-profit corporations, and so on and so forth.
They pounce on every anecdote, every screw-up by a charter, and every report that backs their storyline, even if distortion is required.
For example, when scores on college placement exams stagnate, it’s because reform is failing, not because reform has opened up test participation to a generation of low-income students. When reform makes Advanced Placement classes available to record numbers of low-income students, the exam pass rates are attacked.
When a third grader is retained because he is illiterate, it is the fault of the test.
Retaining a child for intensive reading instruction is defined as harsh. Socially promoting him to certain failure in later grades is not.
When public schools fail, it is because the tests are unfair, the grading system is unfair, funding is inadequate, the students are poor, and so on and so forth.
When charters fail it is because they are unaccountable and run by charlatans trying to steal money from public schools.
These are general examples with plenty of exceptions. But this history cannot repeat itself with the Common Core State Standards.
They are ready for launch in 2014-15. Or perhaps I should say they will be launched, ready or not. The initial test scores will dip, as we’ve seen in Kentucky and Ohio. They will be dismal.
If we don’t prepare parents and students, there will be fallout and pushback.
As Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute points out: “Big changes lie ahead, but they are fraught with peril.’’ He notes that if we stay the course and set assessment scores at a level that truly signifies high school graduates are career/college ready, “the failure rate will be enormous for years to come and the political pushback will be powerful.’’
As we’ve seen with No Child Left Behind, the escape route is dumbing down requirements.
Not only do the testing consortiums have to figure out how to handle this beforehand, we have to figure out how to message it. There must be a coordinated effort that begins with governors and education commissioners, and extends down to school superintendents, principals and teachers. We need media outreach, editorial board visits, public service announcements, community and local business support, PTA meetings, flyers sent home with kids, web pages, Facebook pages and Tweets.
If we don’t define Common Core now, its opponents from the left and right will have carte blanche to do so after the shock begins in 2015. Like we’ve seen with reform, being right isn’t enough.
We can’t afford to lose this one.
About the author
Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet
Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at Mike@excelined.org