School Climate & Safety

Most Americans Unaware of Common Core, PDK/Gallup Poll Finds

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 21, 2013 8 min read
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Nearly two out of three Americans have never heard of the Common Core State Standards, and among those who have, fewer than half believe the new, more rigorous academic goals in English/language arts and mathematics adopted by all but four states so far will make the United States more competitive in the world, according to a new poll from Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup.

Sixty-two percent of respondents in PDK/Gallup’s annual national survey on public education hadn’t heard of the common core.

And among public school parents, 55 percent didn’t know anything about the new academic standards, despite the fact that educators have already begun putting them into practice in classrooms in the vast majority of states and school districts and have been warning that initial test scores will drop as a result. Of those who had heard of the common core, many were confused by, or misunderstood the standards and their genesis. At the same time, 95 percent of poll respondents said they think schools should teach critical-thinking skills, one of the main goals of the common standards.

The poll also found eroding support for standardized testing, with fewer than 25 percent of respondents saying they believe increased testing has helped to improve public schools. Connected to that is a sharp, one-year decline among Americans who favor using student scores on standardized tests as a measure of teachers’ job performance. In the 2012 poll, 52 percent of poll respondents said they favored using test scores to evaluate teachers. This year, support dropped to 41 percent.

Other poll findings also show that there is strong support for charter schools, opposition to vouchers, broad confidence in the safety of schools, and mixed opinions on hiring armed guards for schools.

Turbulent Time

Those findings come at a particularly turbulent time in public education as the new standards and the tests being designed to measure how well students are mastering them have become the latest focus of battles over the future direction of American public schooling. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are putting the common standards into practice, and almost as many have signed on for the common tests being developed to replace their old state assessments. Nearly 40 states are also working on redesigning teacher and principal evaluations to include student test scores.

“This underscores the real challenge we are likely going to see, which is major pushback from the public and parents because they don’t fully understand what the standards are, and they are going to be very upset about their kids’ lower scores on the new tests,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who favors the more rigorous academic demands in the common core. “This is all made worse by very poor implementation.”

Deborah A. Gist, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, said her biggest worry is the abundance of misinformation about the standards, not that more parents haven’t heard of them. Many of the respondents in the poll who had heard of the common core said—erroneously—that the federal government forced states to adopt the standards, that they would cover all academic content areas, and that they were an amalgamation of existing state standards.

“That’s what we particularly need to address,” Ms. Gist said. “There is so much misinformation out there that it could be problematic for us to carry this through. I think these results are a message to us that we need to engage our families much more in this transition,” she said.

Views on Testing

The PDK/Gallup poll, which is its 45th annual survey on public attitudes toward public schools, was conducted by telephone in May. The national survey of 1,001 respondents 18 and older has a margin of error of 3.8 percent. (Education Week partners with Gallup on a separate survey project, known as the Gallup-Education Week Superintendent Panel.)

The findings on standardized testing—that fewer than one in four of those responding believe that more student testing has led to better public schools—stand in sharp contrast to the results in another national poll published this week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago.

In its question on testing, the PDK/Gallup poll told respondents that there had been a significant increase in testing before asking them to answer whether they thought more testing had helped, hurt, or made no difference in the performance of public schools.

The AP survey—which polled parents and guardians with children in grades K-12—posed a different question. In asking parents how important it is for schools to regularly assess students, 74 percent said it was either extremely or very important to use tests to gauge both how their children are doing and how schools are measuring up. In the same poll, 61 percent of parents said their own children are given about the right number of standardized tests, while 26 percent said their children are overtested. Sixty percent also said that students’ scores on state tests should be included in teacher evaluations.

The PDK/Gallup survey, however, found that 58 percent of respondents oppose requiring teacher evaluations to include student scores on standardized tests. That’s a reversal of public opinion from just last year, when 47 percent of PDK/Gallup respondents opposed using test scores in evaluations.

Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, said that the one-year change in the public’s view is an important data point to weigh.

“For Kentucky, where we have been slow and deliberate about how we are doing our evaluations, this tells me that we need to be even more cautious,” he said.

William J. Bushaw, the executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, said the public and parents are likely being influenced by the teachers and principals in their local schools, for whom they have high regard.

“I think parents are listening to their children’s teachers and are hearing their concerns about these new evaluation systems that are untested and deciding that maybe it’s not fair,” Mr. Bushaw said.

As has been the case for decades, confidence levels in teachers who work in local schools is high. In the PDK/Gallup survey, 70 percent of respondents said they have trust and confidence in the men and women who teach in public schools, while 65 percent said the same of principals.

Basket of Issues

Besides the common core, testing, and teacher and principal quality, the survey delves into the public’s views on school safety, charter schools and vouchers, home schooling, education funding, and overall school quality.

The vast majority of public school parents surveyed—88 percent—said they do not worry about their child’s physical safety at school. Eighty percent said they are more concerned about the actions of other students, rather than the threat of outside intruders in the school. And 59 percent of respondents favor increasing mental-health services as the better approach to promoting school safety; 33 percent of those polled said hiring more security officers would be the most effective. When it comes to the need to hire armed security guards, especially in elementary schools, those polled were split, while the majority rejected the idea of providing teachers and administrators with guns.

“I think parents have clearly identified that providing mental-health services is the most productive way to promote safe schools,” said Otha Thornton, the president of the National PTA. “And while public opinion is more mixed on arming guards in elementary schools, we at National PTA believe the most effective day-to-day safe school environment is one that is gun-free.”

On school choice issues, respondents to the PDK poll continued to hold charter schools in high regard, with 68 percent saying they support charters and 67 percent reporting they would support the opening of new charter schools in their communities. Fifty-two percent also said that they think students receive a better education at public charter schools than at traditional public schools.

There was also a sharp, one-year drop in support for using public money to pay for private school expenses. Seventy percent said they oppose allowing families to attend a private school at public expense, compared with 55 percent last year.

Communications Challenge

The major takeaway from this year’s survey, said Mr. Bushaw from PDK, is that educators have their work cut out for them to mount an effective communications campaign about the common-core standards.

“The best ambassadors to tell the public about what is happening with the standards and the new assessments as well are teachers and principals,” he said. “But I think because some of these same people have very real concerns about how the results will be used, that may be causing them to hold back.”

Sandra Boyd, the chief operating officer and senior vice president at Achieve, the Washington nonprofit that coordinated the state-led effort to write the common core, said she was not surprised by the lack of familiarity with the standards. In 19 states, she said, they are known by a name other than Common Core State Standards. She also said she thinks the public awareness of the common core is higher than its awareness of the academic standards states had been using prior to switching to the common standards.

“I think 100 percent of the public didn’t know what their previous state standards were,” she said. “What’s most important for states and local districts to communicate is that the expectations for students have been raised and to explain to parents what that will mean in terms of putting their child on a trajectory to make sure they are ready for college and career.”

In a third national poll also published this week, by the journal Education Next, 65 percent of respondents said they support to some degree states’ adoption of the common standards, up slightly from the previous year. But the survey of 1,138 adults in June by the polling firm Knowledge Networks also found a near doubling of opposition to the standards’ adoption from last year, with 13 percent now saying they were opposed. Education Next is published by the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, and has as additional sponsors the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Most Americans Unaware of Common Core, PDK/Gallup Poll Finds

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