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Here’s One Way to Dispel Misconceptions About the Common Core

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 29, 2018 4 min read
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There was no question that something as big as the Common Core State Standards, which underpin or influenced several dozens of states’ academic expectations, were always going to kick up some dust.

Nearly from the beginning, though, the initiative faced a landmine of incorrect assumptions and half truths, ranging from those rooted in a misreading of the standards (students won’t read fiction anymore!) to the truly bizarre (schools are scanning children’s irises!)

But it’s possible to correct the public’s misunderstandings of complicated policies, like the common core, by using a fairly simple tool, a new research project concludes.

Adults’ correct responses on a quiz on the origins and scope of the common core improved after reviewing a structured text designed to refute their misperceptions; those findings held up even after a week, according to a summary of the research, which was published last week by the Brookings Institution.

The research was conducted by by Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and two colleagues, Gale Sinatra and Stephen Aguilar, both also at Rossier.

The focus of the study was on whether a “refutation text” could improve knowledge of a complicated and often ill-understood education policy. Generally, such texts briefly state a particular misconception, and then refute that misconception using research and evidence. They’ve been used with regard to correcting misperceptions about science, but less commonly on policy constructs, and apparently, not on K-12 policy specifically.

True and False

For the study, the researchers recruited 600 respondents from Amazon Mechanical Turk, a service that is designed to put temporary workers in touch with employers, but has also been used to connect researchers to people willing to participate in studies.

See also: The Common Core, Explained

The respondents were given a set of six true-and-false questions on the common core, including these. (The answer to all three is false.)

  • Common Core requires more testing than previous standards.
  • The federal government required states to adopt the common core.
  • The Common Core State Standards were developed by the Obama administration.

They were also asked about whether they approved or disapproved of the standards.

Then, half of the sample were given a short refutation text created by the researchers; the other half, a control group, were given Education Week‘s own explainer on the common core, though in a significantly altered format—the researchers cut it from 1,400 words down to 360.

After reading these, the panelists were asked to take the quiz again. They took it a third and final time after a week.

Initially, the respondents were neutral on the common core and held a number of misconceptions. (Just 16 percent got the first question, on testing, correct.)

But upon reviewing the refutation text, the treatment group had a significantly reduced number of misconceptions and more correct conceptions of the standards; they were also likely to support the standards than before. The effects declined somewhat after a week but were still statistically significant.

The control group also improved, but the treatment group outperformed the control group on four of the six questions—a function, the authors believe, of the refutation structure explicitly built into the treatment text, but not into the modified Education Week article.

‘Malleable’ Views on Policy

The scholars conclude, in typically understated fashion, that “people’s views about education policy are quite malleable.” That’s both troubling and heartening, depending on how you view it: People often misinterpret policy but are also willing to change their opinions when given high-quality information. It also raises lots of interesting questions for our field and others.

Potentially, this technique could be used for other education policies that are hard to understand (I’d put teacher pensions on the list, personally), as well as policies that aren’t specifically education-related, such as the Affordable Care Act and “net neutrality.”

“We do want to see the extent to which this generalizes to other policies,” Polikoff said, noting that he and his colleagues want to replicate the study on another topic—likely charter schools, another policy effort surrounded by lots of misconceptions. “Once we have convinced ourselves this is not just a common-core thing, what are the implications?”

One of them is that it could provide a roadmap to how state agencies or other levels of goverment could try to communicate better about complicated policies—such as how they structure FAQ pages or mailers or public service announcements. Journalists, too, could think about ways to serve readers using the refutation-text structure.

In the meantime, the researchers are preparing a long version of their work for publication in a research journal, so stay tuned.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.