Fortune Magazine Chronicles Big Business’ Roller Coaster Relationship With Common Core

Cor-openerv1-2520

Though there are a few reporters and outlets who tackle it  — BuzzFeed’s Molly H-C, EdWeek  — the intersection between business and education is not as well or regularly covered as I would like. That’s too bad, given education’s whopping $600 billion a year size and its obvious economic and social importance.

For that reason alone, Peter Elkind’s long January feature in Fortune describing “how a handful of executives helped turn a decades-old ambition for education reform into reality, their fumbling bewilderment at finding themselves assailed by opposition they didn’t expect or understand, and how they’ve regrouped and rallied to defend what they wrought” is a welcome addition to popular accounts of the debate over the state standards and assessments that have roiled the education world over the last few years.

Even more important, however, the Fortune piece manages to dig up details that have previously gone unreported, avoids simplistic reporting, avoids some common mistakes reporting on schools, and tells us a story that includes some surprises and raises some important issues. 

The piece opens with a fascinating February 2014 scene in which Bill Gates and Charles Koch meet at a restaurant to discuss education, though they fail to find agreement on Common Core: “Gates tried to convince his dinner companion that opposing Common Core was bad both for Koch Industries, which employs 60,000 Americans, and the rest of U.S. business… But Koch wasn’t willing to engage with Gates on the issue. Instead, like a senator politely brushing off a constituent, he gave Gates the name of one of his staffers who focuses on the subject and suggested Gates call the staffer. The Microsoft billionaire left empty-handed.” 

Elkind then goes on to tell the story of the Common Core from a business perspective, focusing on the business community’s engagement with — and turning away from — the issue. 

While other accounts have focused on the policy merits, or the progressive/liberal objections to the Common Core, Elkind focuses on the right-leaning, Tea Party-affiliated critics of the standards and tests – and the emotional nature of the debate: “It wasn’t wonky details that threatened to unravel the initiative. It was the most extreme claims, which spread like wildfire… Never mind that none of those assertions were true.”

There’s not much mention of liberal and progressive advocates who were critical of the Common Core standards and tests, or of their potential impact on the debate or the outcome: “Teachers’ union leaders—who had endorsed Common Core at the outset—complained bitterly about its rollout, especially objecting to the immediate use of new standardized tests in their performance evaluations. This criticism of “high-stakes testing” would later bring Common Core under assault from both ends of the political spectrum.”

Asked about this focus, Elkind told me that “the political reality was that it was the right-wing criticism that was most damaging to Common Core and fueled the attacks on it in legislatures in the states.” Conservative arguments “had more traction in state legislatures.” So that’s where he focused. 

The story was pitched by someone at ExxonMobil about a year before he began working on it, according to Elkind. The piece focuses largely on the involvement of ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson, “a stern, commanding figure with an Old Testament glare and a chewy Texas drawl.” 

 However, as Elkind notes “it hardly was a completely flattering view of business involvement.” In fact, ExxonMobil was upset enough about the piece to write a letter to the editor (Exxon Responds to Fortune’s Common Core Article) complaining that the magazine “missed an opportunity to support education reform by sending the message that it’s safer for business leaders to stay out of public policy.”(As if that was the magazine’s job.)

Indeed, Tillerson and other big business Common Core supporters make a series of mistakes and seem confused and frustrated when things go poorly — a big contrast with the smooth juggernaut of PR and power that’s been described in other outlets. 

Some of the coalition’s mis-steps include a 2012 and 2013 Exxon Mobil ad in favor of Common Core that was scheduled to run during a major golf tournament,whose main result seems to have been a 12-minute Glenn Beck response and a slew of anti-Common Core emails coming into the corporation. Threats to legislators who were friendly to the oil and gas industry didn’t seem to work, either — generating angry responses from Tea Party leaders who argued that Big Business was joining Big Government.

One of Elkind’s most vivid accounts is of a 2014 panel appearance in which Tillerson whines about his failure to persuade lawmakers to protect the Common Core in a particularly tone-deaf way. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”  

“I loved the moment Rex Tillerson in late 2014 is fuming about how powerless he is,” Elkind said in a phone interview. “How bizarre that is.” 

It seems hard to imagine that a big company with strong beliefs in an issue would be so sensitive to being picketed and sent mean emails, but that’s apparently the case.  “It was pretty clear from conversations with Craig Barrett and many others that CEOs are reluctant to get involved in a political issue that doesn’t directly affect their bottom line,” Elkind said.

Eventually, the coalition changed tactics and seemed to gain some traction, focusing on state-level relationships, conservative allies (like Bill Bennett), and ads on Fox News. “They recognized that the battles weren’t going to be won with national ads or statements in the New York Times, but rather fought out in the states, state by state, and turned to exercising influence in the individual states where legislative efforts were taking place.”

To be sure, Elkind makes some claims that some might take issue with: For example:”In truth, Common Core might not exist without the corporate community.” In a sidebar, Elkind writes that Sanders’ position on Common Core isn’t known. However, Sanders voted against a Republican-sponsored anti-Common Core budget amendment last spring, according to the Washington Examiner. Elkind also repeats the “race to the bottom” line of thinking about post-NCLB state testing, which I’ve debunked in a previous post. 

However, Common Core proponents seem pleased with the piece: “Overall, we think the article shows Fortune readers how the standards were developed and why states have stuck with them,” said Blair Mann of the For Student Success Coalition, whose head Karen Nussle is quoted in the piece.  

The support makes sense. While some reporters seem to try and suggest that the Common Core standards are in danger, Elkind sees it otherwise. He notes that 27 states have renamed their standards, and 42 remain part of the Common Core coalition.

“In my opinion, it was one of the best, most objective pieces on Common Core I’ve seen,” said Chad Colby of Achieve. Unlike other accounts, Elkind’s story makes clear that Common Core began way before Obama became president. “Nearly all Common Core articles’ storylines that I have read start in 2009 and with Obama’s presidency,” noted Colby.

Colby also praised Elkind for making sure readers knew that most of the powerful claims against Common Core weren’t accurate. “Most Common Core stories are some “pro” quotes versus some “con” quotes.  Elkind doesn’t just leave the claims out there for the reader to discern the accuracy.” 

Over all, the piece seems solid and adds a useful perspective on the Common Core debate that has gone relatively unexamined.  

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.