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Did the Press Do Its Due Diligence on the Common Core?

I think the Common Core debate has been so heated, in large part, because it seemed to many that it emerged from nowhere, as a fait accompli.  The annual Gallup/PDK poll reported in August 2013 that just 38% of respondents had even heard of the Common Core.  Indeed, today, it's easy to forget that the Common Core's appearance in 2009 and 2010 received little attention. Now, this seems odd, given that the New York Times celebrated the Common Core as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity" and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said it "may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education."

That peculiar disconnect between its presumed import and the lack of attention is the subject of a new report by my AEI colleague Mike McShane and me. In the report, titled Flying Under the Radar: Analyzing Common Core Media Coverage, we take a deeper look at how carefully the press covered this "once-in-a-generation" phenomenon. (Full disclosure: The report is published by my shop at AEI.)

We tallied LexisNexis coverage to examine press coverage of the Common Core. Now, as McShane and I point out, "Any project like this one is limited by the tools at researchers' disposal to analyze the data available. We used LexisNexis because it is a consistent, stable, and reliable source of aggregation of news stories and wire reports. It is not, however, an exhaustive source for everything written about a topic in a given time period. Numerous blogs and trade press also wrote about the Common Core, most notably Education Week...These, however, were mostly designed for the education community and had a limited effect on the broader public discourse."

McShane and I find that U.S. news outlets mentioned the term Common Core 453 times in 2009 and 1,729 times in 2010--the period during which the standards were first unveiled and during which more than half the states adopted them.  Compared to later reporting, that critical early coverage appears pretty sleepy.  In 2011, the number of mentions increased to 2,313. In 2012, it more than tripled to 7,800--when the issue had already been settled in most states.  Last year, in 2013, the media discovered the Common Core, with 26,401 mentions--or more than ten times the number of stories from 2009 and 2010 combined.

But these numbers don't really mean anything in isolation. After all, maybe even the 453 stories of 2009, when the new Race to the Top program encouraged states to adopt the Common Core, is a lot. So, for comparison sake, we compared coverage of the Common Core to that of school vouchers. We thought vouchers an especially interesting comparison, because voucher programs only involve a few hundred thousand children in a modest number of states, while the Common Core was rapidly being adopted by more than 40 states with the intention of profoundly impacting the instruction of 40 million students.

In 2009, school vouchers were mentioned 2,055 times. The figure was 2,252 in 2010, and 5,561 in 2011.  In other words, during those crucial years, the Common Core had less than half as many mentions as vouchers. (That finally changed in 2012, when Common Core mentions narrowly exceeded voucher mentions, and it changed dramatically in 2013--when Common Core mentions outstripped voucher mentions by more than three to one.)  Heck, in 1999, when fewer than 30,000 students were enrolled in voucher programs, there were more stories written about vouchers than were written about the Common Core in 2009, 2010, and 2011 combined (when states enrolling more than 41 million students signed on).

One intriguing way to summarize all of this is that, by the end of 2013, there had been one press mention of the Common Core for every 1,100 students enrolled in Common Core states...and one for every four students in a voucher program. Moreover, coverage during 2009-12 rarely gave any hint the Common Core might be controversial. For example, the word "critic" only showed up in connection to the Common Core once in 2010, zero times in 2009 and 2011, and four times in 2012--before showing up 97 times in 2013.

What does this all mean?

First, it's hard to look at these numbers and not conclude that the mainstream media dropped the ball. The standards were rarely covered even as states prepared to alter instruction for tens of millions of students. Now, the media has been making up for lost time.

Second, it seems clear to me that this partially reflects that Com­mon Core supporters were trying to keep their efforts below the radar in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Indeed, personal conversations and communications left me confident that this quiet strategy was intentional. Now, supporters had every right to adopt that approach, but the bottom line is that stealth is not a good strategy for pursuing fundamental, sustainable change to 100,000 schools educating 50 million other people's children.

Third, our democratic process relies on information. A lack of familiarity with the Common Core has, to the consternation of proponents, proven to be fertile ground for all manner of rumor and uncertainty. Ultimately, informed consent is the key to policy durability. When real majorities sup­port policies, they endure. When support is a mile wide and an inch deep, they don't.

Finally, there is a conspicuous disparity in the coverage of school vouchers versus that of the Common Core. If vouch­ers were clearly more substantively significant than the Common Core, there'd be no puzzle. But it's hard to argue that programs serving 300,000 students were clearly more important in 2009, 2010, and 2011 than a bold attempt to remake reading and math instruction for 41 million students. It's unclear what's responsible for this disparity--whether it's skepticism towards conservative policies, faith in "expert"-driven processes, or just disinterest in writing about standards--but it's surely worth a bit of reflection.

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