Foundations Spend Millions Promoting Common Core

Published January 28, 2014

This article is the second of three in a series on Common Core public outreach.

A coalition of private foundations has spent approximately $2.5 million to promote Common Core, primarily by teaching teachers public messaging techniques. They and others plan more big-ticket spending on public relations in the months ahead.  

The Common Core Communications Collaborative (CCCC)”has the goal of enabling strategic communications efforts nationally and across states in support of the implementation of the Common Core Standards,” according to grants channeled to this group through the New Venture Fund, an organization that helps manage nonprofit projects. The fund did not return repeated requests for comment.

CCCC’s founding members are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Helios Education Foundation, Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Helios and Schusterman did not publicly report their contributions to CCCC, but the other four did. Their gifts totaled $2.35 million. The Gates Foundation was the largest contributor, at $1.15 million, and the Helmsley Foundation was second, with a $600,000 donation.

Gates’ grant says CCCC aims to reach “K-12 educators, parents, policy makers, higher education leaders and other key audiences.”

Amplifying Supportive Teachers’ Voices
A main CCCC project is a two-day conference for hand-selected teachers who support Common Core, called Teacher Voices Convening. The first TVC was held in Tennessee in September 2013, and the second was in Arizona in January 2014.

Teachers and employees of state-focused education nonprofits participated in mock legislative hearings on Common Core and responded to brusque, role-playing “legislators.” They thought about how to illustrate their support for Common Core with personal stories, and heard presentations on Common Core “myths.”

#TVC Tweet 1

Conference leaders encouraged teachers to get active on social media, meet with civic groups and parents, and speak up in public forums, said Superintendent Jerry Boyd of Putnam County Schools, Tennessee, who attended September’s TVC.

#TVC Tweet 2

“A big chunk of it was devoted to focusing on the landscape in our state,” said Charles “C.R”. McLeod, communications director for the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. “We had a chance to work for several hours as the Delaware team on ‘How can we be using teacher voices to communicate this to parents,’ alleviate the fears about it, instill confidence this is really going to benefit children in the long run.”

Delegates from nine states attended the Arizona conference, including from Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington. CCCC covered the costs for most teachers to attend. Other attendees had to pay their own way, and chipped in to sponsor the remaining teachers, McLeod said. State departments of education typically selected the teachers who went, often through state teachers unions and education reform nonprofits.

‘Cheated’ by Low Expectations
Andrew Vega is an eighth grade literature teacher in Boston who attended TCV in January.

“A big focus on the conference was how to work with people who aren’t 100 percent in favor of Common Core or don’t see it’s necessary,” he said. Before moving to Massachusetts, Vega grew up in and then taught in California. The difference in instruction between the two states made him a Common Core supporter.

“In a way, I feel like I was cheated because I went to public school in California,” he said. “In Massachusetts, I was asking eighth graders to do the same things I had been asking juniors and seniors to do in California.”

The conferences are a way “to make sure teachers don’t feel left out from the conversation,” McLeod said.

“It would be great if through my work with this team we can set up best practices and share with others so it can be not just Massachusetts is top ten in the world, it can be the United States is top ten in the world,” Vega said.

Not Just a Conference
The state teams that attended TCV plan to continue working together on Common Core messaging, and already are preparing for key moments, such as when the Common Core practice tests arrive this spring or state legislative hearings.

In June 2013, Boyd helped start Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT), a coalition of eight Tennessee superintendents who support Common Core, merit pay for teachers, and tying teacher license renewal to student test scores.

One of their goals is to “have a unified voice on the policy level,” Boyd said. He and the other superintendents found they were “likeminded” on education policy, so wanted to give themselves an official name and “gain legitimacy.” They wrote a public letter to Tennessee leaders, supporting Common Core.

But LIFT also just meets to “bounce ideas off,” Boyd said.

As superintendents, “every meeting we walk in we want solutions, but sometimes they turn into discussions of compliance, all the woes of bureaucracy,” he said. LIFT “is more ‘What can we do with this,’ solutions we can bring back.”

With all the recent education reform efforts, it’s hard to sift through them all to determine what is best for students, Boyd said: “There’s been so much.”

But he’s convinced Common Core does “raise expectations for students.” He also thinks it’s important for teachers and administrators to join the policy conversation, and appreciated that focus of TVC.

Teachers’ “main focus are their 25 or 125 students,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t have the time to get their voice out… You hear from business leaders, politicians, administrators.” But, in education, what’s ultimately important “is the day in, day out influence teachers have on kids.”

Communicating…in Private
Five leaders of the CCCC for its founding nonprofits did not return calls for comment, including Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the federal Race to the Top program, who is now an independent consultant. Her website says she “Represent[s] Schusterman on the Common Core Communications Collaborative, the Common Core Assessment Implementation Network, and the Common Core Funders Working Group.”

Reached on his cell phone, Matt Gandal, another independent consultant working on CCCC, asked “How did you hear about this?” and said he would “try to get back to you.” He neither called back nor responded to three follow-up calls.

Gandal is a former teachers union official, executive vice president for Achieve Inc. (which managed the creation of Common Core and manages one of its tests), and also led Race to the Top implementation for the Obama administration. He helped lead the January TCV.

Risky Moments Ahead
“We’re hearing a lot of teachers feeling comfortable with the standards, but uncomfortable with the assessments,” McLeod said. He suggested future TCV events focus on the Common Core tests:  “Scores could be falling or changing. We foresee a lot of anxiety around that.”

Vega said teachers deserve to have a say in policies that deeply influence their lives.

“If there is a flaw in the Common Core it is that it did not have a lot of input from the field, but it’s still a good document,” he said. If the test doesn’t go well, it’s not going to be on the policymaker. I will hopefully still have a job. At the field level the stakes are highest, and we are the ones who feel the pressure of these changes on a daily basis.”

Next: States promote Common Core to wary residents.