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What do Americans think of Common Core standards? It depends on how you ask.

“When you break down the components … people are in favor,” says Morgan Polikoff of USC. “It’s just when you call it Common Core people don’t like it.”

USC’s Morgan Polikoff: “Common Core has really become a target of conspiracy theories, particularly on the right. On the left, it’s been wrongly conflated with standardized tests. They think of trying to make everything the same, and who wants that?”
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

Have you been following the din over the Common Core State Standards? The education regime that is so evil it has united the American left and the Tea Party?

The political hot potato that dominated the recent GOP presidential candidate forum on education? So incendiary some of those same Republicans are sprinting away from their former support? That has opened a rift within the American Federation of Teachers over leaders’ decision to endorse supporter Hillary Clinton?

Surely you’re aware of the bit of policy idiocy that inspired that viral, mocking 18-minute segment on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”?

So you know it’s baaaad. But do you know what it is? And where it is?

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Two new polls show public support for the Common Core has eroded over the last two years, with either 49 percent or 46 percent of those surveyed expressing support in 2015.

The contradiction

At the same time, respondents favor using the same academic standards from state to state — the “common” part of the effort’s name — and the same assessments to measure how well students and schools are meeting them. And they want those math and reading standards — the “core” — set high.

Explaining the contradiction, it turns out that overwhelmingly we don’t “know much” about Common Core — including whether it actually is being implemented in our local schools. No surprise, then, that there are similar disconnects over the value of standardized tests and the legitimacy of the opt-out movement.

“When you break down the components of Common Core, people are in favor,” says Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, who blogs engagingly on the topic. “It’s just when you call it Common Core people don’t like it, and that’s because they believe many things that are not factually accurate.”

Wonks at work

First things first: Late August isn’t just back to school time, it’s also education polling season. While civilians with literal skin in the game are bemoaning school supply lists and posting first-day portraits to Facebook, the wonks are trying to figure out whether the shrieking headlines of the day reflect — and affect — popular opinion.

With dueling versions of a No Child Left Behind rewrite before Congress — one that shreds federal school accountability and another that dramatically dilutes it — the results this year have been especially hotly anticipated.

Two big, hotly watched polls have been released in recent days and more smaller and regional samples — including one Polikoff helped design — are expected in the very near term. According to chatter on the Internets, all of the surveys but one jibe. And the one is a frequent outlier.

Earlier this month Education Next released its ninth annual survey, which found a second consecutive year of downticks in support for Common Core and broad opposition to the burgeoning opt-out movement. Last year 54 percent of those polled by EdNext favored the standards; approval fell to 49 percent this year.

EdNext is published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The authors of the report that accompany the poll are four scholars from Harvard and Louisiana State universities. (Full disclosure: In 2009, I wrote a story about teacher-led schools for EdNext.)

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Questions tested using different phrasing

The poll is particularly fascinating because every question is tested four times using different phrasing. Not only does this help validate the results, it gives some clue into why respondents feel the way they do.

For example, a subset of the poll’s questions revealed a majority of respondents do not know much about Common Core, and 50 percent don’t know whether it is in play at their schools. A number of other questions revealed that when the phrase Common Core is not used, a majority support the idea of rigorous, uniform accountability standards.

Two-thirds of those surveyed “completely” or “somewhat” support “the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.” Indeed, because respondents like the term “accountability,” some questions were re-tested without it.

Acceptance of Common Core also went down when people were asked whether it should be used to “guide” what teachers do in the classroom. This jibes with what many policymakers have long believed to be parents’ preference for an objective measure of how their children and schools are succeeding and desire for local control of curriculum.

Indeed, the far-right rap on Common Core has been that it is a “national curriculum,” vs. an enumeration of what students should know regardless or where or how they are educated. The same rigor vs. “standardization” perception divide shows up in testing and opt-out questions.

“Common Core has really become a target of conspiracy theories, particularly on the right,” says Polikoff. “On the left, it’s been wrongly conflated with standardized tests. They think of trying to make everything the same, and who wants that?”

“People have a little bit of a better sense with testing what’s going on,” he adds. “But in terms of how many hours the kids take standardized tests each year, their numbers are way off — by a factor of two.”

Among the research Polikoff has conducted regarding Common Core are surveys of major publishers to determine how many textbooks touted as aligned to the new standards really are. At an Education Writers Association seminar last year he displayed a stack of texts that received Common Core emblems but saw no other changes.

The outlier poll

Contrast this with the results of the poll Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) — an association of educators that publishes its own journal — has been conducting in conjunction with Gallup for decades. For the second year running, its poll found a majority opposes Common Core and 64 percent think there is too much emphasis on “standardized” testing.

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Only one other national survey over the last two years has come within 20 points of the PDK findings, Polikoff notes: “The fact that it is so divergent from other polls does suggest there is something going on.”

Where many of the EdNext questions are prefaced by a statement in favor and a statement opposed — an approach many find more neutral — the PDK poll uses language many perceive as suggestive.

One example is its opt-out question: “Do you think that all parents with children in the public schools should be allowed to excuse their child from taking one or more standardized tests?”

Forty one percent agreed, vs. 25 percent who supporting opting out when EdNext asked this way: “Some people say that ALL students should take state tests in math and reading. Others say that parents should decide whether or not their children take these tests. Do you support or oppose letting parents decide whether to have their children take state math and reading tests?”

(Side note: EdNext has been accusing PDK of “cooking the questions” for years—though on far more ideological questions.)

Researchers also questioned the order in which PDK asked its questions, noting that by the time respondents got to the opt-out section they had heard lots of loaded buzz-phrases.

An understanding that people’s views changed as they talked about their opinions with researchers was one of the key drivers of the successful campaigns of recent years to defeat ballot initiatives banning marriage equality here and elsewhere. In that case, as people were asked neutral questions about their own marriages and the gays and lesbians in their families, opposition slumped.

“It’s not as strong as push polling, but you can certainly craft questions that support a particular narrative,” noted Polikoff.

Neither organization is accurately described as political. Education Next frequently publishes on issues related to education reform, though its scholars’ views can be sharply divided — particularly on hot buttons like vouchers and the federal role in education. For its part, PDK has a track record of publishing articles that question whether changes are in fact better than the status quo.

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Why so contentious?

All of which perhaps prompts the question: If no one knows what Common Core is, how did it come to be so contentious?

George Bush’s No Child Left Behind attached punitive consequences for schools that did not teach every student. But because most Republicans believe in local control in education, the law did not set a threshold for failure.

In response, many states lowered the bar. This prompted 48 governors to come together to survey teachers — an element now completely lost in the discussion — to decide what a student who received a good education should know.

Under then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota piloted the standards that became Common Core math. When the time came to adopt the work of the consortia, Pawlenty declared Minnesota’s standards higher than Common Core. The state did adopt the reading standards — though we insist we’ve done so with our own tweaks — and has kept its own science standards.

In practice, other states where Common Core has become the subject of ugly political battles are likely to do something similar: Mostly keep the painstakingly designed standards — which are driving the higher-order thinking teachers hoped they would, albeit slowly — and rebrand them as the Florida standards or the Illinois standards or what have you.

Which might work. A topic as dull and impenetrable as academic standards might never have become a topic of debate at all except for the unusual alliances among opponents. On the left, a loose teacher-union-led effort hopes to slow or dismantle the uses of the accountability data, including performance evaluations.

Political dimensions

After U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made adoption of Common Core or another rigorous set of standards an element that could qualify a state for Race to the Top funding, Tea Partiers charged in decrying federal overreach in education.

“If it had been a Republican who was president, you would not have heard nearly as much about it,” says Polikoff.

Several weeks ago, these strange bedfellows in the U.S. House and Senate birthed two bills that would overhaul No Child Left Behind, the subject of congressional gridlock for more than a decade.

So where does he suspect public opinion actually lies? Polikoff is one of the architects of the USC Rossier/Policy Analysis for California Education poll, whose release is imminent. It should underscore what he thinks the fine point of both of the other polls say to him: That among Americans who think about educational accountability at all, opinions are split pretty nearly evenly.

“Poll results in line with other poll results is not a sexy headline,” he says.