The Common Core State Standards initiative, arguably the most sweeping change to public education in at least a generation, is facing mounting skepticism—and still drawing many blanks.
A pair of national polls out this week asked similar questions of voters about key education issues including the Common Core, which once had widespread bipartisan support but is now under attack. Both polls—one by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup and one by Harvard researchers for Education Next—found public support eroding for the common standards, which set grade-level expectations for student learning but do not dictate classroom instruction.
According to the 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll, fewer than half of Americans have heard a “fair amount” or “great deal” about the Common Core. Despite that lack of familiarity with the standards, 60 percent of the poll respondents say they oppose the Common Core being used in their own local schools by teachers to guide instruction.
The 8th annual education poll conducted by the Harvard researchers suggests the standards’ lackluster support may have more to do with toxic branding. When the words “common core” were removed from the question, 68 percent of the general public supported uniform national standards for schools, said Paul Peterson, a Harvard government professor and one of the Ed Next poll’s co-authors. Add “common core” back to the equation, and support plummets by 15 percentage points, to 53 percent.
“I do think the name has acquired a negative patina—if you don’t use the words ‘common core,’ people are as supportive as they were a year ago,” Peterson told EWA. “There is a feeling out there that there’s some federal dictation of textbooks material. That’s what the opponents are harping about, and they are making headway.”
How did you First Hear About the Common Core State Standards?
The Harvard group polled 5,000 people. The PDK/Gallup poll drew from a sample of 1,001 people. Both gathered their results in late spring of 2014.
The nation’s public education system “is one that’s struggled for close to two centuries on finding some balance between a national ethos and standards that would apply for all students against the equally compelling notion that some decisions are better made by teachers in their classrooms,” said Michael Feuer, dean of the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development. “We’re trying to work through this tension, and it’s not surprising to me that the question of implementation has engendered a lot of going back to the drawing board and rethinking the basics.”
Opinion in the PDK/Gallup poll splits along both party lines and whether respondents had children in public schools. Fifty-four percent of Republicans and 63 percent of public school parents stated they know at least a fair amount about the common standards, with the number for Democrats and independents at 40 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
More than three-quarters of Republicans polled in the PDK/Gallup survey said teachers shouldn’t use the common standards as a framework for their instruction. Among Democrats, 53 percent support using those same standards.
The justifications that supporters and critics of the multi-state standards provided to the pollsters varied considerably. Critics cited the mistaken belief that the federal government initiated the standards as one major reason for their opposition. In fact, the standards were written and produced by state and non-profit organizations. Some states have used federal dollars to help school personnel prepare for the Common Core.
Backers feel the assessments tied to the standards will give parents a more complete picture of how their students are performing in school. Critics worry the standards will limit teacher accountability and make way for a national curriculum.
Interestingly, teacher support is one of the major reasons cited by backers for favoring the Common Core. While 77 percent of opponents named lack of teacher support as a “very” or “somewhat” important reason for their views on the standards, a slightly greater number—87 percent—of the initiative’s backers say they “very” or “somewhat” support the Common Core because teachers in their communities favor the initiative.
At the national level, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed frustration that uneven implementation has eroded support for the fundamental principles of the common standards.
“We have supported the Common Core standards because of their potential to help kids … think critically, solve problems and work with others—skills needed to be successful in today’s economy,” Weingarten said in a statement. “But these standards must be guides, not straightjackets, and they must be decoupled from testing. Parents, students and teachers have to be given the time, curriculum, resources and support to make the transition work.”
It’s important to remember that polls are snapshots of public opinion. Given that caveat, how accurate or useful is polling data? Education polls often ask unprepared people to make “finely nuanced distinctions” without the requisite background, said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C., in an interview with EWA last year. “You get a result, but you also get a lot of noise.”
The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed diverging concerns about the effect school funding has on a student’s academic performance. Nearly half of Democrats polled say lack of school financial support is a big problem in the schools of their communities. A fifth of Republicans felt the same way. But the typical American may underestimate how much money goes into public education.
The Harvard poll found that teachers and the public believe their local schools receive roughly $6,000 per student annually. They also believe the national average is higher: $8,000 per year, according to teachers, and $10,000, according to the public. In fact, the latest data show per pupil spending in the U.S. averages roughly $12,000, though there’s a wide range in spending levels depending on the state. According to 2011 data compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America, Utah’s per-pupil spending hovered just under $8,000, while New York’s surpassed $21,000.
Of the respondents to the Harvard poll, 44 percent favored increasing per-pupil spending in their district, while 9 percent felt spending should be reduced.
As for the federal leadership question, President Obama has lost some of his luster in the eyes of Gallup respondents: Since 2011, the percentage of Americans awarding him an A or B for his support of education issues dropped from 41 to 27 percent. Today, 43 percent give him a D or F, whereas in 2011 only 19 percent of Americans nearly or totally flunked the president. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats score the president with an A or B; among Republicans the comparable figure is 3 percent.