The common core—arguably the biggest issue on the national education landscape—has a serious image problem with an American public uneasy about the overall direction of K-12 policy.
That’s the picture that emerges from a pair of high-profile public opinion polls unveiled last week by PDK/Gallup and Education Next, a journal published by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Each reports stiff opposition to the academic standards being implemented in all but a handful of states.
And while the wide-ranging polls took different approaches in analyzing sentiment toward the Common Core State Standards, some responses also reveal a heavy dose of skepticism about top-down government involvement in driving school policy at the state and local levels.
Among the various highlights from the two surveys: While awareness of the standards jumped in the past year, many U.S. adults have misperceptions that the standards are a federal initiative; support for the standards by teachers is slipping; and there is a steep partisan divide over the common core.
Such results are no surprise, said Michael Feuer, the dean of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
“On the one hand, there’s no question that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has had a profound influence, and mostly positive influence, on American education,” he said. “On the other hand … it’s etched into our political DNA, this allergy or anxiety about centralized decision making in education.”
The polls offer dueling snapshots when it comes to the level of support and opposition to the common core.
The number of respondents who said they had heard about the common core jumped to 81 percent in the 46th annual survey of attitudes toward public schools from Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup polling organization. That was up from 38 percent in 2013. However, 60 percent of those polled opposed the standards, generally because they believed they will limit the flexibility of teachers to teach what they think is best. (Last year’s poll did not specifically ask respondents whether they supported the common core.)
Meanwhile, the poll from Education Next found that while a majority of those surveyed continue to support the standards, that support fell overall, from 65 percent in 2013 to 53 percent this year. That poll also revealed increasing resistance from teachers. In 2013, 76 percent of teachers backed the common core, but that number plummeted this year to 46 percent. And teacher opposition more than tripled, from 12 percent to 40 percent.
The PDK/Gallup poll findings are based on telephone interviews conducted in May and June with a national sample of 1,001 American adults, including a sub-sample of parents. The Education Next poll surveyed 5,000 adults this past spring.
The authors of the PDK/Gallup poll report placed much of the blame for the opposition on the public’s perception that the standards are a federal initiative.
“I think we missed how the [No Child Left Behind Act] legislation is impacting Americans’ opinions about public school and about the federal role,” PDK Chief Executive Officer William Bushaw said in an interview, adding that the unfulfilled promise lawmakers made that NCLB would result in all students being proficient by this year has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. “I argue that’s part of the equation with the common core. Unfortunately, it looks like a federal initiative when it’s not, and Americans are skeptical right now of the federal role given what’s happened with NCLB.”
Of those who opposed the common core in the PDK/Gallup poll, 40 percent said that one of the most important reasons was their belief that the federal government initiated the standards, and 38 percent cited their view that the common core will result in a national curriculum and national tests.
The Education Next poll explored the potential branding problem of the standards in order to gauge whether the words “common core” elicit greater antagonism than the concept of common standards itself.
The poll asked half of respondents, chosen randomly, whether they support or oppose the use of the common-core standards, but replaced “common core” with “standards for reading and math that are the same across the states.” When the label was dropped from the question, support for the common core increased to 68 percent from 53 percent.
Both polls also highlighted the partisan split on the common-core standards. In the PDK/Gallup poll, 76 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents said they oppose the standards. Democrats were the only category of respondents polled in which a majority said they support the standards; 53 percent in favor compared to 38 percent opposed.
The Education Next poll found that the majorities of both Republicans and Democrats supported the common-core standards in 2013, but that support among Republicans fell this year from 57 percent to 43 percent. Support among Democrats remained nearly unchanged, with 64 percent in favor in 2013 and 63 percent in 2014.
Despite the partisan divide, there was one area of agreement in the PDK/Gallup poll: Sizable proportions of Republicans (68 percent), Democrats (45 percent), independents (55 percent) and public school parents (60 percent) agree that local school boards should have the greatest influence in deciding what is taught in the public schools, as opposed to the federal or state governments.
Funding and Testing
The wide-ranging surveys polled respondents on other education issues as well, including funding, testing, and school choice, to name a few.
A lack of financial support was named the top challenge facing public schools by 32 percent in response to an open-ended question in the PDK/Gallup poll, the only problem to draw a double-digit response.
However, in the Education Next poll, support for increasing local school spending has not returned to its pre-recession level among respondents who were told current spending levels. As compared to 50 percent in 2008, only 43 percent who were aware of current spending levels favored spending increases in 2014. The same was true for teacher salaries, the Education Next poll found. Among those told current salaries in their state, only 38 percent favored salary increases in 2014, compared to 54 percent in 2008.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Polls Capture Public’s Sour View Of Common Core State Standards