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The Press Dropped the Ball on the Common Core

During the past couple months, newspapers and cable news have had a field day analyzing Obamacare's troubles. Firestorms over HealthCare.gov or President Obama's unfounded assurances seemingly sprung from out of the blue. This followed years during which these boiling issues received little media scrutiny, permitting problems to fester.

There are important lessons here for K-12's current brouhaha over the Common Core. Introduced in 2010 and adopted by forty-plus states with little notice by the end of 2011, the Common Core has since rocketed into the popular imagination. Headlines are now filled with tales of angry public meetings and legislative clashes in places like Florida, New York, and Georgia.

This discord has surprised some enthused about the effort, which The New York Times editorial board celebrated as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity," and which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said "may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education."

The Common Core wasn't always contentious. When unveiled in 2010, it drew little controversy and little public examination or debate. At that time, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the Thomas Fordham Institute, and conservative champions of national standards noted, "This profound... shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don't much care for government to start with." They concluded this inactivity was a testament to the quality of the standards and broad support for more uniform expectations.

Three years later, things look different. States that raced to adopt the standards in 2010, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, have expressed second thoughts on participating in the standards. In New York, Common core critics have called for the resignation of education commissioner John King, due to concerns about his efforts on behalf of the Common Core. At a convening hosted by the Education Writers Association, the president of the American Federation of Teachers just recently declared that the implementation of the Common Core is "far worse" than the troubled launch of Obamacare.

Where was all this anger when states were adopting the Common Core? Why is it boiling up now? Well, here's one important clue: As Gallup reported this fall, 68% of Americans had never heard of the Common Core. States have spent two or three years planning to fundamentally alter how schools teach and test reading and math, but parents and teachers are only now encountering big changes that seemingly came out of the blue.

Common Core advocates have tended to dismiss unrest and concern as a function of parents and teachers being uninformed, or misinformed. But whose fault is that? Portraying parents and teachers as ignorant, in this case, seems be a matter of blaming the victim. The real culprits are those who chose not to educate or engage the public, or those who did little to shed light on a quiet effort to pursue the "single greatest" educational change in a half-century.

Put plainly, the public had little access to information about the Common Core. A search of Lexis- Nexis's repository of news articles from across the U.S. shows 450 newspaper stories mentioned the "Common Core" in 2009, the year it was being created. (For comparison's sake, that same year, 2,185 stories mentioned Disney actor Zac Efron). Not a single story that mentioned "Common Core" also mentioned the word "controversy," "coercion," "critic," "against," "Duncan," "opponent," or "federal." Perhaps most telling, not a single 2009 story felt obliged to use the terms "supporter" or "defender."

In 2010, the tale was similar. Nationally, as dozens of states adopted the Common Core, there were a total of just 1,648 stories. Not one mentioned "controversy," "coercion," "against," "Duncan," or "opponent." One mentioned the term "federal," and another cited a "critic." (It's worth noting that, in all of this, Education Week, in particular, and the education press, in general, proved the exception to the rule. Starting with Michele McNeil and Sean Cavanagh, and continuing today with Catherine Gewertz, Ed Week has done a terrific job with Common Core coverage. But, that doesn't change the larger story. After all, I suspect the same has been true in the health care trade press since 2010. That didn't equate to general familiarity with the pressing details of health care reform.)

Mostly, early coverage of Common Core amounted to innocuous updates or puff pieces. The Hattiesburg American headlined one 2010 story, "State moving to new ed standards." The Huntsville Times titled another "Spotlight shines on city school system." The Oregonian reported "More rigorous math tests will get state vote today."

Today, things have changed. Observers are shocked--shocked!--to find that parents and teachers are only now learning about the Common Core and are angry that key decisions were made three years ago without scrutiny or debate.

The press is reveling in the resulting kerfluffle that its previous inattention helped to create. In August 2013, for instance, there were more than 3,000 stories written about the Common Core--more than the number of stories that ran in 2009 and 2010 combined. September 2013 again boasted more than 3,000 stories. Thus far in 2013, hundreds of Common Core stories have mentioned "opponents" and "supporters."

The 2013 headlines illustrate a radical shift in tone. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported "Meltdown over Common Core." The Palm Beach Post headlined an October story "New education model elicits anger, suspicion." West Hawaii Today reported "Common-core standards have tea party seeing US school takeover."

An informed citizenry requires information. But advocates thought they had a chance to slip profound educational changes into effect, with the aid of the Obama administration and without a messy public debate. Now that the debate has been joined, advocates and reporters have a second chance to explain the substance, examine concerns, talk honestly about challenges and costs, and ensure that the public has a chance to fully and fairly weigh the case for the Common Core.

A version of this column, co-authored with my colleague Mike McShane, ran previously here in US News and World Report.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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