Education Chief Kicks Off Campaign to Explain Common Core Standards

Statewide effort aims to address community concerns about tougher academic benchmarks

Education Commissioner David Hespe
If you haven’t heard enough already, get ready to hear a lot more about the Common Core State Standards, via the Christie administration.

Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday that his department hopes to go school-by-school with a statewide community outreach campaign to promote and explain the much-disputed standards..

Hespe said the campaign will include providing schools with resources, from text to video, while education department staffers – with help from teachers and principals in the field — will encourage and facilitate larger community discussions.

“One of the foundational elements to what we are doing in the state in terms of education reform is new, higher academic standards,” Hespe said yesterday. “And I don’t think a lot of people understand what the standards are and why they are good for kids.”

In what will be an unprecedented effort — at least since the state’s enacted new academic standards 15 years ago — Hespe said the campaign for now will focus on the Common Core standards in language arts and math, which have been adopted in 43 states and Washington, D.C, rather than the even-more controversial testing that is being driven by the new benchmarks.

The standards have technically been in place for three years, but it is their newly aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing, which will start in spring of 2015, that is spurring much of the public angst.

But Hespe said many of the concerns about Common Core are due to what he calls “clearly a lot of misinformation.” He said he hopes the resources being distributed by his department will help them explain the new standards to concerned parents.

“We’re going to drive it down to the school level, where we think it is the best way to communicate with families and parents and students,” he said yesterday.

“As many as we can,” he said. “I would hope that every school at least has some resources available to it, be they brochures, websites, (or) a video that a principal can show at a back to school night.”

Hespe’s comments came yesterday after a Power Point presentation to the State Board of Education about the new standards.

Developed over the course of a decade, the Common Core standards are billed as being more rigorous and demanding, pressing students to delve deeper into topics and learn the skills of research and inquiry, rather than just memorizing facts.

But Common Core has come under fire across the country – especially in the past year — from critics on both the right and the left, with the more conservative voices complaining about federal control of local schools while liberal critics have focused on the one-size-fits-all model and the associated testing.

Among those in the audience yesterday for the lightly attended meeting was Susan Cauldwell, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, the non-profit arm of the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ.

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the public is not allowed to participate in these scripted, staged presentations,” she said in an email last night.

“The Common Core State Standards were adopted four summers ago,” she continued. “That the DOE is now mounting a public relations offensive speaks to their failure to engage and consider the opinions and concerns of various stakeholders. Today’s presentation did little to address that failure.”

Under political pressure from both sides, Gov. Chris Christie this summer compromised on the use of the new PARCC testing in the evaluation of teachers, scaling back how much student test performance will weigh in the new rating system, at least for now.

Christie also created a task force to study the use of the standards and the testing in the state’s public schools up to now and in coming years, with its first report due in December. The panel’s nine members have yet to be appointed by the governor, but Hespe said they are likely to be announced in the next two weeks.

Hespe said the task force will focus more on the testing, and that he expects a vigorous discussion, but he said there are still plenty of reasons for his department to put its energy into explaining what’s behind the testing in the standards.

“I am trying to unravel the different areas of debate, and we’re going to start with the Common Core, where I don’t see there is much area of disagreement,” he said. “But when you hear Common Core, it all gets woven together: testing time, teacher evaluation. One may be driving the other, but they are still separate policy issues.”

Hespe didn’t put a price tag on the campaign, saying “There is always going to be a cost involved, but this should not be overly expensive.”