Cuomo’s Common Core panel aims to boost public opinion

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Stanley Litow. (IBM)
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ALBANY—At the top of the agenda for Andrew Cuomo's expert panel on Common Core standards was the question of how to improve public opinion. 

Led at its opening meeting on Wednesday by chair Stanley Litow, an IBM executive and former deputy chancellor of New York City schools, the panel interviewed several representatives from advocacy and education stakeholder groups regarding their proposals for how to improve Common Core implementation.

The expert presenters stressed during the two-and-a-half hour meeting that the success of the standards relies heavily on support from parents and the general public.

They also said that states like Tennessee, Kentucky and Arizona have been more successful at building public support for the standards, and they did it by involving the executive and legislative branches, rather than allowing their state education departments to lead the effort, like New York has.

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“I do think Tennessee and Kentucky are at the forefront of those efforts, because they didn't rely on the state department of education,” said Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. “I think [education departments] would acknowledge themselves that public engagement is not what they were designed to do. You'll see governors, Republicans and Democrats, really owning that process of engagement and forming partnerships with people in the state Legislature.”

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a reform-minded policy group that participated in the development of the Common Core standards, echoed Martin's arguments. The two were the first to testify, tasked with presenting national best practices in Common Core implementation.

“The places that did it well had a structure for doing it; most importantly, they did not rely simply on the state education department,” Cohen said. “In Arizona, there is a group ... that's organized by the governor that actually meets on a regular basis to figure out how to get positive messages out to people on the Common Core.”

Unlike in other states where governors were intimately involved with Common Core implementation, Cuomo has largely stayed out of the process, letting state education commissioner John King and the state Board of Regents take the heat from parents and teachers over the rocky rollout. Cuomo jumped into the fight last month during his budget address when he criticized the Board of Regents for implementation failures and announced that he would form a panel to look at how to improve the rollout. He appointed 11 members to the panel on February 7; its first meeting was not widely publicized although it was live streamed online so those who knew it was taking place could watch.

King has been criticized for how he has dealt with public unease over the Common Core and other contentious issues in education, particularly teacher evaluations and testing. He held a series of public forums around the state, but after an October meeting in Poughkeepsie turned to chaos, he temporarily suspended the meetings, a decision that led lawmakers, local unions and advocacy groups to call for his resignation.

King's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. In a previous interview with Capital, King said the department and school districts need to improve their efforts to communicate with parents about the positives of the Common Core.

“There is no question that we, together with districts, need to continue to find ways to better communicate what the Common Core is, what the Common Core isn't, and what it means for students in the classroom more effectively,” he said in the earlier interview.

Litow said he knows from his experience in New York City the limitations of public school systems and suggested that the state education department work with other government leaders as well as the private sector to improve communication.

“There are things that public systems do well, and sometimes they need help from outsiders,” Litow said. “I now work for IBM. We help the government implement social security; that was something that couldn't have been done by just one entity or one sector of society alone. That doesn't mean that the state education department can't improve themselves and do a better job, but they'll need help from others—from government, from the private sector, from civic groups. I think everybody needs to get behind this, because it's not just one element of society's problem. It's everybody's problem.”

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said it was “refreshing” to participate in a positive discussion about the Common Core standards. Most presenters at the panel's meeting spoke in support of the standards and went easy on the state regarding implementation problems. When a panelist asked the presenters to rate the state's rollout of the standards, some offered a six or seven out of 10, which represented a near-perfect implementation.

“I believe personally that many of the people who live in these communities have been misled,” Kremer said, responding to a question about school board members' outlook on implementation of the standards. “There are so many political moving parts out there that are trying to blame each other. Some of the detractors of Common Core and education reform have won the battle in the court of public opinion. I've been playing defense for a while now.”

Theresa O'Brien, principal of an elementary school in Watervliet, near Albany, said at the meeting that the Common Core's unpopularity has been a significant obstacle in the process of raising standards.

“It's very, very hard to keep my staff moving forward,” O'Brien said. “We work hard. We've taken a lot of risks. We've invited the press in to see the good work we're doing—whatever you can do to start a more positive message. Education is so important, and we need the buy-in of everybody.”