Feds Spend Millions to Promote Common Core

Published January 27, 2014

This article is the first of a three-part series on Common Core public outreach.

The federal government is paying to promote controversial testing and curriculum mandates called Common Core, and so are a collection of big-name private foundations and states. They are employing a number of strategies, but topping the list is training pro-Common Core teachers to multiply their support and hiring professional communications teams.

The federal government has provided all the operating funds—$330 million total—for two groups that will roll out national tests in spring 2015. These are the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced (SBAC). Together, the groups’ proposed budgets submitted to the federal government indicated they would spend almost $5.5 million in taxpayer dollars to convince taxpayers their money has been well spent and should continue once the federal funds dry up in September 2014. Later documents show PARCC and SBAC have upped that amount to at least $9.9 million.

Convincing the Public with Their Own Money
PARCC planned to spend $400,000 “for a retainer with a communications firm” to provide “public and targeted outreach materials tailored to Partnership state needs.” Such materials includes “toolkits” and “policy briefs.” It also budgeted $3,453,719 to “develop a leadership cadre of content experts.”

That cadre is now known in PARCC states across the country as the “PARCC Educator Leader Cadre” (PELC). Between 16 and 35 people are in each such group in the sixteen PARCC member states across the country. Here’s a list of Ohio’s, Oklahoma’s (before it withdrew from PARCC), Florida’s, and Illinois’. More than 1,000 teachers and education staff participate in the cadres, according to a PowerPoint from Lynn Brabender, a PARCC program associate.

SBAC budgeted $1.5 million “to work with an outside communications firm” to reach “key stakeholders and legislatures about the assessment system and for building support for the system from the public and those stakeholders.” A December 2013 request for proposals (RFP) from SBAC allows up to $5.2 million for a communications contract.

Spending on these projects doesn’t include other public relations activities, such as paying for testing representatives to deliver essentially marketing presentations to state officials. In fall 2013, for example, both PARCC and Smarter Balanced sent employees to the Indiana legislature in an attempt to convince them to keep Common Core and its national tests.

The testing organizations have increased their federally sponsored public relations push just as parents and teachers across the country have begun objecting to the national initiative and pressuring their state representatives to withdraw. It’s a crucial moment for the consortia, as their federal money runs out soon and must be replaced by state-collected tax dollars if they are to survive. The consortia have been using federal tax dollars to convince taxpayers and their elected representatives to continue ponying up. Meanwhile, Alaska, Kansas, and Utah have dropped out of SBAC and Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania  have dropped out of PARCC.

How It Works
PARCC spends federal funds on two in-person meetings of PELC members per year, consortium documents say: “PARCC will cover travel and lodging costs for all participants. This includes airfare, meals, ground transportation and hotel room costs.” PARCC contracted with the National Math and Science Initiative to create and lead the cadres nationally. NMSI is a nonprofit that has also received donations from Common Core supporters, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, College Board, and Exxon-Mobil. NMSI has also received federal funds from the Department of Defense Education Activity, U.S. Department of Education, and the Office of Naval Research.

PARCC actually gave NMSI more than it had budgeted for the cadre: The contract is worth $4.3 million in redirected federal funds.

Teachers, curriculum directors, and other administrators who participate in the cadres perform a variety of duties, including reviewing test items for PARCC, attending meetings and webinars, helping PARCC write curriculum, and training other teachers how to teach according to Common Core. Illinois PELC members have given workshops on Common Core and PARCC “in many venues,” and some sent a newsletter on those topics to all teachers in the state’s southern region, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois board of education.

“They have also served as local liaisons for schools and districts for new standards and PARCC,” she said over email. A request for more information yielded this: “A liaison serves as a bridge, passing on the flow of information, resources, training opportunities around the standards and upcoming assessments. They may not always be the ones leading professional development but could be involved in the planning and support of PD sessions.”

School Reform News repeatedly contacted officials in five state departments of education for comment on PELCs. Some did not return calls, others promised to, but didn’t, and also ignored follow-up messages. SRN also contacted at least half a dozen cadre participants in several states. None would discuss the initiative.

For example: Char Shryock, a curriculum director and PELC member outside Cleveland, Ohio requested all SRN’s questions in writing, which were provided that afternoon and never answered, despite a follow-up phone call and email three weeks later. Most people contacted, however, simply didn’t respond.

PARCC’s spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Getting to the Teachers
PELC members are also expected to promote Common Core to teachers and the public, say state and PARCC documents.

“The cadres are intended to be an integral part of each state’s strategy for engaging educators in the CCSS and PARCC,” state materials from Arizona’s education department.

Materials from Ohio’s education department describe PELC members as “Distributors/messengers/ambassadors” for Common Core and “strategists, editors, listeners, and messengers”: “Think of them as a focus group.”

“[C]adre members are in a great position to push out messages and materials and to ensure benefit from the widest possible circulation,” the document says. “At a minimum, they all have e-mail lists of colleagues and ideally are part of broader professional networks.”

PARCC recommended that states select cadre members “who have a broad professional network that can be leveraged to reach an ever expanding number of educators,” the Arizona document says.

Oklahoma has pulled out of PARCC, and state lawmakers are considering bills to repeal Common Core entirely. Meanwhile, the state department of education is still convening its former PARCC cadre, according to an employee there whose name is withheld because he was not cleared to speak on the topic.

“We’re still doing work with it here in Oklahoma,” he said. “We’re just doing it within our state, because we found it so beneficial.” Then he stopped talking and said he needed permission to speak with reporters and would call back if he got it. Two weeks later, he returned a follow-up call with a phone message, saying “I’m not really able to talk about the PARCC Educator Leader Cadres,” and directing questions to the department’s communications office. That office did not return repeated phone calls.  

Leading from PARCC
State departments of education selected the PELC participants, but PARCC suggested how they should do so, its latest report to the federal government says: “The consortium provided recommendations indicating the qualifications states should look for in nominating individuals for Educator Leader Cadres, such as commitment to the work, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, team orientation, interest in pedagogical and curriculum development work, innovation and creativity, and facility with technology.”

That report says the cadres are a central component of PARCC’s communications strategy, which the consortium intends to expand in “scope and reach” in 2013-2014. The cadres “develop a group of educators who can serve as ambassadors for the consortium in their state. As… interest [in the Common Core tests] increases, the twice-annual convenings of the Cadre members and periodic webinars will be an important opportunity for these educators to become even more active in sharing information with their own communities.”

“A common characteristic among ELC members: They are passionate about the promise of the Common Core and PARCC and stand ready to help make the public case,” says a PARCC guide  to PELCs for policymakers.

The guide highlights the cadres in Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Mexico, most of which have made dozens of presentations on Common Core to fellow teachers. It also says PELC members might be expected to advocate for Common Core to state lawmakers and local media, “Write op-ed columns for local newspapers and opinion blogs,” and “Present at informational briefings with community organizations and education-reform advocacy groups.”

What About SBAC?
It’s not just PARCC putting millions of federal dollars into public relations. In its latest report to the federal government, from May 2013, SBAC acknowledged “the consortium faced challenges” in communications.

“The Common Core State Standards, and the consortia building assessments aligned to those standards, have become objects of well-organized and effective political opposition,” SBAC’s December RFP says. It also expects “significant drops in proficiency rates” on the new tests and the difficulties of working with so many states on one project to be communications risks: “If not managed well, the public and political reaction to this change could endanger acceptance of the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced assessments.”

It aims to remedy that with a full-court communications press as its tests roll out across the country this fall.

Its RFP seeks “a comprehensive Communication Plan to enable adoption and widespread acceptance of common college- and career-ready performance standards for the Smarter Balanced summative assessments across all member states.”

For $5.2 million, SBAC wants “compelling messages” aimed at education decision makers such as state superintendents, legislators, and state board of education members before key votes over SBAC’s cut scores, or the level kids are required to reach to pass the tests. It also wants materials aimed at “grasstop” people like the media and business leaders, and at “grassroots” people like parents and teachers. Other communications targets include governors, superintendents, teachers union leaders, college and university officials and faculty, and community leaders.

The organization that wins the contract must develop a communications plan that includes:

  • “background meetings with reporters, press releases and media advisories, press teleconferences, and on-the-record interviews”
  • “A rapid-response capacity to identify and respond to opposition when and where advantageous”
  • “Web and social-media strategies”
  • “Identification, training, and use of effective spokespeople”
  • “Turnkey resources for state use (presentations, sample web pages, op-eds, etc.)
  • And “Contingency planning for crisis communications.”

The many communications materials already available should be folded into SBAC’s messaging push, the RFP says. A plethora of private foundations and advocacy groups are continuing to prepare such materials, many of which focus, like PARCC, on raising the profile of supportive teachers.

“As educators, ELC members are credible voices in the reform conversation and can explain to key audiences—including teachers, parents, policymakers and the public—the rationale and value of new standards and assessments,” says PARCC’s policymaker guide. “Leveraging their leadership and expertise is critical to the success of the Common Core and PARCC.”

Next: Private foundations spend millions to push Common Core. Image by woodleywonderworks.