Public Relations Advice on the Common Core Debate

The other day I wrote about the public relations problem facing the Common Core math standards. Posts from frustrated parents have been popping up on Facebook and Twitter for months claiming to show “Common Core” worksheets that are so confusing an electrical engineer or doctor can’t even figure it out.

Teachers have been valiantly, and sometimes argumentatively, trying to defend the ways in which math education has evolved since these parents were students in elementary school. Where once the focus was on direct teach, a limited set of algorithms, and countless repetition, now the focus is on developing number sense, strategic thinking, and broader reasoning skills.

While teachers have a lot of education research to back up their teaching methods, parents have their children to worry about, and they are scared that the instructional changes brought about by Common Core are going to be detrimental to their children’s learning. And this brings us to the PR problem facing the Common Core math standards.

Frustrated, scared, and angry parents have waged a battle in social media to bring attention to their concerns and scare other parents into action. At the same time, this serves to discredit the experience and expertise of teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, when the issue boils down to pedagogy vs. children, the human element is more compelling. A parent scared for his child’s education is going to foster more sympathy than a teacher arguing the merits of modern math instruction.

I’ve been wondering what can be done to “fix” this problem, so I chatted with a friend of mine who works in public relations. This topic was admittedly outside her normal scope of work, but she raised a few interesting strategies that I want to share here.

A Singular Message

One of the most effective ways to wage a PR campaign is to have a singular message that is used by everyone involved. I feel that the frustrated parents have been successful with this. Their message is simply: “Common Core math instruction is so confusing, intelligent adults can’t make sense of it, much less our children.” Sure there is a lot wrong with this message, but the fact that it is repeated over and over gives it power, and that matters more than the truth of the statement.

My concern is that educators are too fragmented to develop and deliver their own singular message. We have some arguing with parents about how math education has changed in the past 20-30 years. We have others saying that the parents don’t know what they are talking about and should trust the teachers to do their job. We even have teachers who, for various reasons, are saying that they aren’t fans of the Common Core standards either.

Our message is fragmented and too varied to be as effective as the one put forth by the parents. How do we change that?

An Important Voice

My friend recommended finding someone who can serve as a respected “voice” in education. Someone whose words shine a spotlight and draw attention to issues. They may not create converts immediately of course. However, where we fail as many voices, we might find success by choosing the right person (or several people) to deliver an equally strong message as the one used by the parents, one that is supportive of the modern methods of teaching math in schools today.

I’m not sure who this person should be. I’m afraid that the Common Core standards are very much politicized, so having a politician be the voice would backfire. Honestly, the first two names that come to mind are Bill Gates and Sal Khan. I have my doubts that they would want to give the kind of message that is needed, but I can’t deny they are the kinds of people that these parents might stop and listen to.

A Parallel Message

I spoke about this a bit in my previous post. Whatever message is used to counter the frustrated parents, it cannot be worded so that it is against those parents and their viewpoints. Having an “us vs. them” dynamic is not going to help educators reach the outcome they want.

The message needs to be a parallel message. If parents have the space to share their views on how terrible Common Core math is, educators need to also have the space to share their vision of how math is being taught today and what benefits it has for children.

K.I.S.S.

Long essays on the merits of today’s math pedagogy are not going to win over these parents. First of all, a lot of this writing is ending up in education websites and magazines that parents won’t see in the first place. Secondly, you want to keep your message simple to connect with as many people as possible.

My friend said one thing that might help is some kind of infographic(s) that illustrate the hows and whys of math education today. They need to be published in mainstream outlets so that the general public sees them frequently.

One of the biggest issues with the criticisms by the frustrated parents is that they are based in ignorance. Ignorance of what is going on in the classroom today, and ignorance because that’s how they feel when they are confused by an assignment and it is making them doubt their own math knowledge.

These parents are basing their arguments on how they learned math as kids many years ago. They are not aware of all the research that has been done to help improve teaching methods. So they cherry pick certain math topics, often whole number computation, and construct a narrative that teachers are making these “simple” skills way more complex than they need to be.

However, there are many, many adults who would be quick to tell you they are “bad” at math. If they aren’t confident in their own math skills beyond multi-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and possibly division, then what makes them think their math education was so amazing all those years ago? Shouldn’t they want their children to grow up to feel “good” at math?

Finding simple ways to illustrate and educate these parents will go a long way towards warming them up to what is going in schools and the benefits it can have for their children. And they have to see these things countless times. In addition to having a clear, consistent message it is crucial to have that message get out there as often as possible. A drop or five in the bucket won’t solve the problem. It’s going to take lots and lots of drops in the bucket.

One example that I’ve seen shared over and over by @trianglemancsd is 1,001 – 2. It’s a problem that can be solved using traditional methods, but it highlights why we encourage students today to think more critically about what they are doing. Why go to the effort of writing this problem down and crossing out all those zeroes? Just count back 2 and you’re done. I’ve seen a similar idea presented with 100 – 98.

Or better yet, contextualize it. Your favorite basketball team is currently leading 52 to 48. How many more points does the other team need to catch up? Oh, you counted up from 48 to 52. Interesting. Why didn’t you line up the numbers and subtract like you were taught?

I wonder if there is an effective way to present these kinds of problems visually to get parents to think first, and then give them an a-ha. Maybe a simple mental math solution and some tagline like, “There’s always more than one way to approach a problem.”

I would love to have some TV commercials that present a problem and then show various students solving the exact same problem using different strategy after different strategy. And again, end with a tagline that highlights this idea of the diversity in ways of thinking about math. This is what we’re trying to foster in our children. It’s also something they do naturally.

So there you have it. Advice from someone who works in PR about how we can try to overcome the bad publicity dogging the Common Core math standards.

Anyone out there want to take this and make it happen? Summer is starting so you have the next 3 months where parents may not be worrying about this issue quite as much. Use this time wisely and you can be ready on the first day of school next year to kick off your own PR campaign to inform and influence the parents at least in your own school if not farther afield.

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