Teaching Profession

Common Core: A Puzzle to Public

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 27, 2013 8 min read
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In a pair of new national polls aiming to capture the American public’s view of the state of K-12 education, one finding is clear: Most of those surveyed are clueless about the Common Core State Standards.

Sixty-two percent of all respondents in a poll from Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup had never heard of the common core, and awareness among public school parents was not much better, at 55 percent. In a separate survey from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which polled parents of K-12 students, 52 percent said they knew little or nothing about the common core, even though educators have begun putting the more rigorous standards in English/language arts and math into practice in classrooms in the vast majority of states and school districts.

But in trying to glean what the public and parents think about another marquee issue in public schooling—standardized testing—the polls paint a much murkier picture. Depending on how the question is worded, respondents are either fed up with testing, as found in the PDK/Gallup survey, or believe it’s essential for knowing how well students are stacking up, as found in the AP survey.

“People’s views are just much more complex than an answer to a single question,” said Jean Johnson, a senior fellow at Public Agenda, a New York City-based opinion-research organization that studies a range of public policy issues including education. “Having these polls out together actually provides a lot of information, and in some ways, suggests issues that need some attention. Clearly, common core is one of those.”

Skeptics Abound

In trying to better understand what those who had heard of the common core know and think about the standards—adopted in nearly every state—the surveys had somewhat similar results.

The PDK/Gallup survey found that just 41 percent of respondents who had heard of the standards believe they will make the United States more competitive in the world. Forty-seven percent of respondents in the Associated Press poll said they believe the standards will improve the quality of education.

Of those in the PDK/Gallup poll 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.

In a third, wide-ranging national poll also published last week, this one 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 journal’s 2012 survey. But the new survey of 1,138 adults also found a near doubling of opposition to the standards’ adoption from last year, with 13 percent now saying they were opposed.

“Whether you are a supporter or an opponent of the common core, you’ll find things that support your point of view in all of these polls,” said Michael Brickman, the director of national policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is one of Education Next‘s sponsoring institutions. “The standards will remain an unsettled issue until we start to see the actual widespread practice of using them and testing for them at the school and classroom level.”

Turbulent Time

The PDK/Gallup poll—the 45th annual survey on public attitudes toward public schools from the professional educators’ group and the giant polling organization—was conducted by telephone in May. The national survey of 1,001 respondents 18 and older has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.

The poll also found strong support for charter schools and opposition to tuition vouchers, broad confidence in the safety of schools, and mixed opinions on hiring armed guards for schools. (Education Week partners with Gallup on a separate survey project, known as the Gallup-Education Week Superintendents Panel.)

Such 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 U.S. schooling.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, which were developed through an initiative led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. (One of the 46, Minnesota, has adopted the English standards only.)

Almost as many states have signed on for the common tests being devised to replace their old assessments. Already, educators are warning that those tests—expected to be much harder—will cause student scores to drop initially.

Nearly 40 states are also working on redesigning teacher and principal evaluations to include student test scores.

Reacting to the low level of public awareness shown in the polling, Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who favors the common core, said: “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.”

Deborah A. Gist, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, said her biggest worry is the abundance of misinformation about the standards. Many of the PDK/Gallup respondents who had heard of the common core said, erroneously, that the federal government had forced states to adopt the standards, that the standards 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 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 the Associated Press poll. But the questions posed in the two surveys were quite different.

The PDK/Gallup poll prefaced its question by saying there had been “a significant increase in testing,” before asking those being surveyed whether they thought more testing had helped, hurt, or made no difference in the performance of public schools. Forty-one per

cent said that more testing had made no difference, 36 percent said it had hurt, and 22 percent said it had helped.

The AP survey—which polled 1,025 parents and guardians with children in grades K-12—posed a different question. It asked parents how important it is for schools to regularly assess students, and found that 74 per

cent said it was either extremely or very important to use tests to gauge how their children are doing.

In the same poll, 61 percent of parents said their own children are given about the right number of standardized tests; 26 percent said their children are overtested. Sixty percent also said students’ scores on state tests should be included in teacher evaluations.

The Education Next poll, meanwhile, found that just about half of all respondents favored, to some extent, linking teachers’ salaries in part to how well students perform on state tests.

The PDK/Gallup survey found that 58 percent of respondents oppose requiring that teacher evaluations include student scores from standardized tests. That’s a big jump in negative opinion from 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 PDK/Gallup poll’s one-year change in the public’s view in using scores in job evaluations 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 and co-director of the poll, 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 true for decades, confidence in teachers who work in local schools is high. In the new PDK/Gallup survey, 70 percent of respondents said they have trust and confidence in those who teach in public schools, while 65 percent said the same of principals.

Range of Issues

Besides the common core, testing, and teacher and principal quality, the PDK/Gallup survey delves into the public’s views on school safety, school choice, home schooling, funding, and overall school quality.

Most public school parents surveyed—88 percent—said they do not worry about their children’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.

While 59 percent of respondents favor increasing mental-health services as the best approach to promoting school safety, 33 percent of those polled said hiring more security officers would be the most effective tactic. On the question of a need to hire armed security guards, especially in elementary schools, those polled were split, while a clear majority rejected the idea of arming teachers and administrators.

On school choice issues, respondents to the PDK/Gallup poll continued to hold charter schools in high regard, with 68 percent saying they support those independent public schools 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. But there was also a sharp rise in opposition to 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.

Communication Dilemma

The major takeaway from this year’s survey, said Mr. Bushaw of 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as Common Core: A Puzzle to Public


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