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“Reframing” California Common Core for a Better Public Sale

August 22, 2014

The Frameworks Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the images of other nonprofits with the goal of hooking the public regarding the target nonprofit’s agenda:

Changing the conversation on social issues

FrameWorks designs, conducts and publishes communications research to prepare nonprofit organizations to expand their constituency base, to build public will, and to further public understanding of specific social issues.

In addition to working closely with social policy experts familiar with the specific issue, its work is informed by a team of communications scholars and practitioners who are convened to discuss the research problem, and to work together in outlining potential strategies for advancing remedial policies.  FrameWorks also critiques, designs, conducts and evaluates communications campaigns on social issues. Its work is based on an approach called “Strategic Frame Analysis™,” which has been developed in partnership with UCLA’s Center for Communications and Community. [Emphasis added.]

Frameworks is California-developed (a partnership with UCLA) and Washington, DC-based. In March 2013, a number of “influential philanthropists” enlisted Frameworks to develop– here it comes– “a new Core Story of Education”:

Recognizing the challenge that nonprofit and public-sector leaders face in engaging the American public in meaningful education reforms, an influential group of philanthropic leaders came together to partner with the FrameWorks Institute in developing an effective new ways of talking about this critical issue: a new Core Story of Education.

With funding from Nellie Mae, Ford, Hewlett, Mott, Kellogg, NoVo and Raikes Foundations; significant previous related funding from Lumina and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and recently-added funding from the Noyce Foundation, this collaborative endeavor has supported extensive quantitative and qualitative research to identify how to reframe critical issues in education reform.

The resulting, research-based reframing strategy is The Core Story of Education: a narrative framework that orients a wide variety of expert communications around a consistent set of tested message elements, thus organizing and amplifying the potential of the education sector to redefine and reinvigorate the public conversation on teaching and learning. These new research findings add vital communications tools and strategies to aid education experts and reform advocates who have struggled in recent years to counter the harmful narratives that now constrain public understanding of the education system. [Emphasis added.]

Frameworks has come to help the California pro-CCSS set modify their message in an effort to coax the public into embracing CCSS.

Apparently Frameworks has “worked closely with social policy experts familiar with” CCSS and has advised them to go against the “competition-crisis-blame” narrative that they are now well known for pushing– and which began in 1983 with A Nation at Risk— and which assumed as obsessive, standardized testing emphasis in 2001 with No Child Left Behind.

Frameworks offers California’s CCSS pushers this guide in an attempt to soften the high-stakes, non-stakeholder-driven message of American education failure attributed almost exclusively to imaginary hordes of incompetent American classroom teachers.

Here are some excerpts that Frameworks suggests CCSS promoters refrain from communicating:

In order to ensure American kids are graduating college and career ready – we need to raise the bar substantially. The Common Core State Standards set higher expectations, but they also focus in on what really matters. These standards are fewer, higher, and deeper than what we had before. They spell out the foundational knowledge and skills for students in each grade, in the fundamentals: reading and math.

The fact that 45 states have adopted them means we now have the same standards across the country, for the very first time. One of the travesties of No Child Left Behind was seeing some states water down their standards so that they wouldn’t look bad on the tests. With shared standards, we’ll be better able to see how schools are stacking up.

Frameworks says that the above message is rooted in “the crisis frame,” which can “sap public will for meaningful change.” It also notes that “raising the bar” and “higher expectations” implies the impression of willpower– “which makes it harder for the public to appreciate the need for systemic investments and reform.” Frameworks also notes that “pointing to the failures of the past feeds public skepticism that change is possible now.”

Frameworks suggests planting flowers on the manure heap of CCSS by *reframing* the message in this manner:

Preparing our young people for the world of tomorrow means equipping them with the knowledge and skills today that they will need to succeed in the workforce. To do that, we need to update our goals for learning – and that’s really all Common Core Standards are. They are a set of learning goals that work grade-by-grade, step-by-step toward what modern careers and colleges expect, so that when students graduate, they are ready for college, ready for work – ready for life.

So what does it mean to be “ready”? In our fast-changing world, readiness involves having a very flexible kind of skills set – like a rope that can be used in many contexts. We need workers who can adapt to new situations and apply what they know to unforeseen problems. By making it a priority that students are able to weave together knowledge from different content areas, and problem-solving skills, and the ability to communicate and work in teams, we’re asking educators to shift their approach to teachingWe will be putting more emphasis on giving students chances to integrate what they learn in various subjects. I’m excited to see this kind of excellent teaching become more and more common – I think that this approach is going to build the next generation of American innovation. [Emphasis added.]

Frameworks still assumes that it is fine to subjugate the purpose of learning for the joy of it to learning as a means to workforce preparation.

Being “ready for work” equals being “ready for life.”

But Frameworks is much nicer about how it delivers the message. It assures Californians that CCSS is “really” only “a set of learning goals.” No mention of high-stakes testing driving curriculum and garnering major profits for mega-education companies.

And then there’s Frameworks’ emphasis on flexibility— an irony given the rigid nature of CCSS.

And, wait– weaving together knowledge from different content areas— I really like that one. I wonder how that connects to narrowed focus on high-stakes testing in two core subjects and the drain it places on funding (much less enjoying) any courses that are outside of English and math.

In sum, Frameworks is “asking educators to shift their approach to teaching.”

I thought CCSS wasn’t supposed to tell teachers how to teach….

I must be mistaken. The imposed CCSS is asking, not telling.

Indeed, for many teachers nationwide, high-stakes testing has already forcefully “shifted” their teaching “approach.”

CCSS must have its conjoined twin of standardized testing.

Frameworks doesn’t mention that twin just yet….

Frameworks advises proponents of CCSS to be “excited to see this kind of excellent teaching become more common.” It is supposed to lead to “innovation.”

Standardization does not lead to innovation. It leads to standardization.

Innovators are not standardized. Innovators do not depend upon PR nonprofits to train them in how to sound inviting in an effort to manipulate public opinion.

Nothing so day-old-bread as trying to “how-to” the spontaneous.

But back to Frameworks and its efforts to sell, sell, sell CCSS.

Let’s do another one.

Frameworks advises CCSS proponents to avoid the following message:

The stark reality is there’s a big disconnect between what kids currently graduating from high school know and can do and what’s expected of them in the college and career opportunities that lie ahead. According to 2012 statistics only 45 percent of kids taking the ACT were scoring college ready in math and only 52 percent were college ready in reading. The question isn’t how this change in standards will be confusing to kids near the end of their high school careers – the question is what can we do to help them before it’s too late? If we don’t do something to fix this huge gap between what today’s jobs require and what American kids can actually do, the US is going to fall behind lose our ability to remain globally competitive. [Emphasis added.]

Ahh, the need for global competition. 

Our Nation is at Risk.

Frameworks says, No, no” to this message, for it communicates crisis thinking:

By highlighting stark statistics and using Rhetorical Tone to underscore urgency, this response is likely to cue up Crisis thinking – which depresses, rather than builds, public support and engagement.

But this is my FAVORITE Frameworks observation on the above “crisis-competition” scare tactic:

This response asks the public to believe two contradictory propositions: that our kids are terribly behind, and that they can meet higher expectations if they only try. [Emphasis added.]

That’s it! You’re a loser, American student, but if we *raise the bar,* we will– improve you??

Frameworks also advises that the “bootstraps” component of this message is bad for CCSS because it undermines the need for “collective, systemic” CCSS:

Emphasizing that “real learning is hard” leads to the idea that school success is determined by individual willpower. This Individualism frame makes it difficult to see the large, collective, systemic issues at play. [Emphasis added.]

Real learning IS hard– and not all students will put forth the effort to “achieve” some “higher bar.” And for some who do put forth the effort, the reality is that they will not be able to achieve every capriciously-set, “high bar” goal. There is indeed an individual component to all learning. I must own responsibility for my learning. I must also own responsibility for my limits. As a teacher, I do not “make” students learn, and I do them disservice to pretend that all are standardized, supposedly-limitless, workforce-serving minions.

Just because someone hands me a tablecloth, calls it a cape, and tells me to tie it to my back does not mean that if I jump from my roof, I will fly.

Whether the tablecloth cape is supposedly “internationally benchmarked” is irrelevant.

Whether or not billionaire Bill Gates footed the bill for tablecloth-cape production, sales, distribution, and marketing makes not one bit of difference.

And the solution is not in having some PR nonprofit “reframe” the launch.

CCSS proponents want us all to tie on the same tablecloths to our students and launch them because based upon international standardized tests results, it looks like students in other countries are flying using tablecloths.

CCSS “innovation”: We need to be like them.


Frameworks suggests ditching the call to “global competition”:

Uses a Global Competition frame – which FrameWorks’ research has shown leads the public to us-versus-them thinking and reinforces ‘broken beyond repair’ opinions on American schools[Emphasis added.]

It’s okay to promote the idea of “broken” schools, but don’t kill off the idea that CCSS (and its tests, let’s not forget) can “fix” the “problem.”

Frameworks wants to help CCSS promoters to win their game.

Unfortunately for Frameworks, the “competition-crisis-blame” message is popular with CCSS purchaser Bill Gates and CCSS-assessment purchaser, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Frameworks doesn’t advise CCSS marketers on how to get past the past.

That’s a shame.

It takes finesse to sell the American public a message of schools as “broken” but not “broken beyond repair.”

Of course, the “repair” must involve standardized testing.

Look at the gentle assessment landing Frameworks tries to present for all of those tablecloth-cape jumpers:

In order to grow a strong workforce of tomorrow we must have an accurate way of evaluating how we’re building students’ potential today. Today the key issue for employers is not whether workers know certain content but rather how they go about finding, verifying, and applying information.

The CCSS were designed to address the reality of a changing world, and so the assessments that go along with them must do the same. The Smarter Balanced assessments adopted by California are a thoughtful remodel of the way we assess learning. Like any good remodeling project they reflect an upgrade in quality and content. They ask students to show deeper learning and to solve real world problems across disciplines. Students must provide written reflections that explain their reasoning. They solve multi-step problems that require application of knowledge of how an equation works in one context to how it might work in another. This is precisely the kind of thinking we have to do in our lives outside of school – it makes sense to evaluate whether they’re learning how to do it in school. [Emphasis added.]

No mention of the potential damage of arbitrarily-set cut scores for those tests. The tests are assumed accurate, and they are assumed to accurately measure “higher order thinking” in order to satisfy the needs of the workplace.

Only the tests “make sense” when it comes to “evaluation in school.”

No mention of high-stakes consequences.

No mention of the reality of standardized testing blunder.

No mention that the best predictor of college success is not the standardized test but grades based upon teacher judgment.

For all of its finessed advice to CCSS proponents, I’m thinking that it is Frameworks that will be left with a stack of unaccepted California CCSS tablecloth capes.


Like my writing? Read my newly-released ed “reform” whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education





  1. Lisa Smith permalink

    The students-as-ropes comment is interesting. I pictured students tying nooses and putting them around their own necks. Depressing.

    • I taught gifted 7th graders. If given a stack of tablecloths and told to use them to solve the problems of CCSS they probably would have tied them together w one end anchored to the leg of my post WWII solid oak desk, busted the single Painted shut window in my post construction site portable classroom and escaped.

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    You could make a fortune if you were on the payroll. The narrative is a beaut. Thanks for this.
    I have been working on the PR materials USDE paid a bunch of contractors to produce with a grant of $43 million in 2010. Nothing like the deep pockets on this venture. All addressed to compliance with RttT and teacher evaluation schemes. The major contractor, IFC International seems to be the PR firm of choice for our govmt, with the American Institutes for Research next in line. The outsourcing is offered under the banner of giving “technical assistance” to whomever is getting funds to spend.
    One brouchure for RttT offers a big porfolio of PR techniques for state and district officials to use for “messaging” –all tricks of the trade, from experts. The one technique that got me was paying teachers to serve on a communications SWAT team if the event of criticism. The other is enlisting the foundation-funded “teacher voice groups” who can work on union leaders who may be obstacles. The products from RSN do not try to reframe the problem because they are owned by the grant from USDE. This reframing project is clearly in debt to the scholarship of George Lakoff. semi-popular version is a paperback called Metaphors We Live By. .
    I think you may have the start of another book exposing all of this. I keep returning to Stuart Ewen’s PR!, the Social History of Spin. 1996, Basic Books. A Chronicle of Educational Spin???
    Pace yourself.

    • Dan McConnell permalink

      I am working on a market-crash to “reform our schools” timeline switcheroo. It is definitely a web, and it doesn’t really hold to any traditional Dem/Republican approach to governance. It is purely class/social control. I’d be interested in sharing what I’ve written so far because some of the names/foundations really move seamlessly between quiet non-profits supplying funds to advisers in the background to political action driving policy…The USDE grant info just makes such sad sense.

  3. ira shor permalink

    Yes, rhetoric is their problem but rhetoric won’t be their solution. The rhetoric of CCSS/PARCC indicts teachers and students for the failure of American schools to be globally competitive, much the same proclamation of ‘A Nation at Risk’ in 1983. Back then, the frame was “trade war” in which Germany, Japan, and Korea were defeating America. Now, 2014, the global condition is obscured b/c there is no there, there, that is, American corporations are global entities which rule the global marketplace, so “our own” corporations are sinking America into low wages, job insecurity, lost benefits, etc., b/c workers in India, China, etc., do it for far less per hour. The slippage in this whole story is to transfer blame from global corporations outsourcing American jobs to cheap labor nations elsewhere, so that the dilemma of economic decline in America is once again blamed on American workers, families, teachers, and students. It’s an old lie recycled once again to distract us from the billionaires and their Wall Street maneuvers which crashed the economy three times in the last 30 years despite all our hard work every day wherever we were employed.

    • ira shor: Well stated. Like a glass of cold water on a hot summer blog-day. Crystal clear. Children are the victims but we can’t blame them so we have to blame the education system and the teachers and the parents who are struggling to hold things together.

  4. Arthur Camins permalink

    The reformers’ framing may obscure nefarious or misguided values, goals and solutions, but those of us in opposition can use honest values-driven framing to gain support for respectful, equitable, democratic education.

  5. ” These new research findings add vital communications tools and strategies to aid education experts and reform advocates who have struggled in recent years to counter the harmful narratives that now constrain public understanding of the education system. [Emphasis added.]”

    “To counter the harmful narratives that now constrain public understanding of the education system?”

    As if there is ONLY one narrative? One opinion? One expert opinion?

    Honestly, screw them. NO ONE gets to take the reins of the discussion and decide what is and isn’t right. That means that adults in the conversation – particularly parents – will be deprived of the WHOLE story at exactly the time they need it.

    Let’s keep the public in public education.

  6. Thanks for the excellent article, Mercedes!

  7. Jon Lubar permalink

    The irony of the accidentally subversive revision of the sales pitch is amusing to say the least. Has Frameworks included a memory charm to make us forget the previous set of sales pitches? In some ways they have stepped onto the slippery slope that leads to ideas inimical to the CC$$. It’s really going to take some parsing for them to avoid the appearance of having thrown in the towel.

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