02/03/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Rebranding Common Core

Test-driven reform has largely failed but, until recently, it was as great of a public relations success as anything that the billionaires' bounty could buy. They branded teacher-bashing and union-busting as the "21st century civil rights movement." High-stakes bubble-in test prep was spun as "High Expectations!" Defenders of the principle of public education for all were labeled as the "status quo." Efforts to protect the liberal arts and our students' ability to wrestle with ideas, and practice their artistic, musical, and athletic talents were rebranded as "adult interests."

The most effective practitioner of Orwellian spin is the TNTP, which was founded by Michelle Rhee and incorporated her personalized politics of destruction. They promote a high-stakes testing assembly line that turns teachers and students into widgets and they condemn educators who want to teach ideas and share creative forms of expression, and other knowledge that is not on the test. The TNTP turns facts on their head, and condemns advocates for the professional autonomy of teachers as defenders of the "widget effect." To them, wrestling with real-world implementation problems is a "dodge."

Even so, not all of the accountability hawks' propaganda worked. "Waiting for Superman" inadvertently portrayed the worldview behind the belief that the "value added" of teachers is supposedly measurable. His cartoon of a student having his head cut open, so that knowledge could be poured in, was too true to their vision of teaching and learning. And, even the architect of No Child Left Behind acknowledged that it encouraged so much primitive basic skills instruction that NCLB became "the most negative brand in America."

Reformer Andrew Rotherham jokingly suggested a rebranding contest for NCLB. Suggestions included, "Double Back Around to Pick Up the Children We Left Behind Act, the Rearranging the Deck Chairs Act, the Teach to the Test Act and the Could We Start Again Please Act."

The reform public relations spin machine has struggled recently as more families reject top-down micromanaging of their children's schools. Common Core standards were originally sold as a corrective to the rote instruction encouraged by NCLB. Now Common Core is promising "tests worth teaching to."

Educators and parents are no longer buying it. They saw that it was the punitive stakes attached to NCLB, not the bubble-in assessments, that often drove the clash of challenging and complex ideas from the classroom. People who actually understood schools know that it is the punishment component of Common Core testing, not the complicated standards that excite edu-philanthropists, that is likely to turn it into the new drill and kill.

The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton reports that states are following the advice of Republican Mike Huckabee, who "urged state education leaders to ditch the 'Common Core' name, noting that it had become 'toxic.'" The conservative former presidential candidate advises, "'Rebrand it, refocus it, but don't retreat.'"

Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer issued an executive order stripping the name "Common Core" from the state's standards. Layton adds that "in the Hawkeye State, the same standards are now called 'The Iowa Core.' And in Florida, lawmakers want to delete 'Common Core' from official documents and replace it with the cheerier-sounding 'Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.'"

Perhaps educators should return the rebranding favor and suggest some other new names. I still support President Obama, even though his education policy is as bad or worse than Bush's NCLB, so I hope we don't recommend "Obama Core." A better new name would be "Corporate Core."

I'm not good at coining soundbites. The best I'm able to do is the "High-Stakes Tests formerly known as Common Core Standards." I hope that others with more talent for coining catchy phrases will think about keeping the "Common" not the "Core" part of the title. After all, reformers are primarily seeking a Common Brand, if not a Common Rebrand. They are peddling a profit-making system of assessments and systems for keeping score. Some seek privatization of public schools, turning them into a profit-making sector of their Corporate Commons.

Surely we can offer a better brand name than my state of Oklahoma which is holding students and teachers accountable for "Common Core-type" tests. No amount of spin will get around the reality that students face. Back when graduate examinations were instituted, they were minimum competency tests. No rational person would impose legitimate college readiness exams on all students seeking a high school diploma. Reformers seek the brand of college readiness standards for all. Not even they can sell the idea of high school only being the track to the university or, degree-less, to the streets.

But, reformers are not likely to welcome suggestions based in reality. Their job is branding and rebranding of grand hypotheses and winning their political battles. If they started to use words that reflect the effects of their policies on students, then some might expect their "output" metrics to have some connection to actual "student performance." The last thing that reformers in Florida, for instance, would allow would be letting the sun shine on their test-driven "A-F School Report Cards" that they are peddling around the nation.