Study: Twitter Discourse Reveals Deeper Rifts on Common Core

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 03, 2015 7 min read
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Education battles on social media have a tendency to appear overblown, with furors over scandals and celebrity comments that explode and just as quickly flare out. But a new research project is teasing out the deeper philosophical disagreements about the future of American education on one of the seemingly most superficial social networks: Twitter.

A website launched last week by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, called #Common Core, gives results of research that uses samples from the 140-character messaging service to track and analyze the first major education policy struggle of the social media age, over the Common Core State Standards. Some 40 states have adopted the standards, but they are facing a backlash, with some states backing out of using them and others refusing to use tests designed to align with them.

Common Core and the Twitterverse

Among a subset of roughly 500 tweets using the hashtag “#commoncore,” tweets making political arguments outnumbered tweets on the policy merits of the standards by nearly 3 to 1. More than three-quarters of the politically oriented tweets opposed the common core.


SOURCES: “#CommonCore: How Social Media is Changing the Politics of Education”; Consortium for Policy Research in Education

In its first report, issued last week, the project’s researchers find social media has given a far bigger voice to parents and those outside of traditional education advocacy groups. But it has also led to the common core being used as a “proxy war” for much deeper divisions in the country over testing, student privacy, and the future of public education.

“It’s the unique intersection of social media, social networks, and politics that makes this so special,” said Jonathan A. Supovitz, a CPRE co-director and a professor of education policy at the University of Pennsylvania, who is one of the project’s researchers. “Not many education policy issues are being debated this publicly and this fervently. The math wars of the 1990s were just little skirmishes compared to the common-core debate.”

The #CommonCore project offers one of a slew of new studies to analyze Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media applications to trace how ideas and behaviors spread within online and real-life communities.

Mr. Supovitz and co-authors Alan J. Daly, the education studies chair at the University of California, San Diego, and Miguel del Fresno, a lecturer at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, Spain, analyzed nearly 190,000 tweets by some 60,000 users from Sept. 1, 2013 through March 4, 2014, that used "#commoncore,” the most popular hashtag for such discussions. The time period, Mr. Supovitz said, coincided with the common core’s move to mainstream public conversation and also with “a big decline in public support” for the standards, though criticism has been a part of the debate, both on Twitter and other media, since the standards’ earliest stages.

The most active day of the study is a case in point: On Nov. 18, 2013, the Twitterverse exploded when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined to state schools chiefs that “white suburban moms” were leading the opposition to the Common Core State Standards. More than 3,000 tweets and retweets on his comments flashed nationwide in a single day under the “commoncore” hashtag alone, contributing to a firestorm of criticism that prompted the secretary to formally apologize a few days later.

‘Deeper-Seated Debates’

The researchers found, however, that much of the discourse around the common core hasn’t really been about the standards.

While commenters “relatively rarely” critiqued the standards for being focused on academics to the exclusion of social and emotional learning and not being developmentally appropriate, “one of our biggest takeaways is that common core is really a proxy war for other, deeper-seated debates about the value and direction of education,” Mr. Supovitz said. “In some ways, the standards themselves are the least present component in the debate.”

A language analysis of a subset of about 500 tweets found that those making political arguments outnumbered tweets on the policy merits of the standards by nearly 3 to 1. Further, political tweets on both sides tended to be more emotional, with comments like, “Stop trying to teach OUR children your urban, socialist values, #Obama,” and “Anxiety attacks. Bursting into tears. Vomiting. Headaches. Self-mutilation. Results of #commoncore.”

“That was not surprising at all; it was a little validating,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a co-editor of a 2014 book on the common core. “Those of us that support common core need to do a better job making emotional arguments,” he said, and "... to connect with people in a way that addresses their concerns.”

Critics of the #CommonCore study, including Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (who also pens an opinion blog hosted on Education Week‘s website), argue the CPRE analysis uses too small a sample, and does not make clear how the political and policy content of tweets are distinguished; the project is expected to release a more detailed description of that this week. Mr. Petrilli also noted that though #commoncore is the most popular tag for the discussion, different factions may be more or less prevalent using other, similar tags, such as #cc and #ccss.

Overall, the researchers identified five common objections in which common-core opposition is conflated with concerns about the federal role in education, student data privacy, standardized testing, business influence in public education, and focusing on student test scores to the exclusion of underlying causes of low achievement, such as poverty and inequality.

That jibes with what state Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Republican, faced in common-core discussions with more than 100 teachers and administrators at 25 public schools in his northeastern Tennessee district.

“I found that there is almost universal agreement that when speaking about common core most people are not talking about one topic, rather several separate-but-connected subjects,” Mr. Haile said in a commentary for the Gallatin News Examiner. That’s unfortunate, he said, “since the conversation is then directed by politics, rather than facts and open discussion.”

One separate poll also released last week suggested that widespread misconceptions about what the common core actually includes—it does not lay out standards for sex education, for example—lowered support among Republicans but increased support among Democrats, pushing the debate farther from policy to politics.

Twitter’s user base makes it particularly well-positioned for education debates, but may also encourage more emotional and politicized conversations among lay people.

More than a quarter of U.S. teachers are under 30, the age group most likely to use Twitter, and the network skews young, urban, and black, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

The #CommonCore study found more than 60 percent of authors tweeted only once on the subject. However, the 682 most prolific 1 percent of tweeters—which included two Education Week users, @educationweek and @StateEdWatch—drove the conversation. There were five users who sent more than 1,000 messages—the equivalent of tweeting more than four times a day, seven days a week, for six months.

Prominent Players

Roughly 40 percent of the most prolific tweeters were not education professionals. These included parents, such as user Lani @formerbondgirl, who decided to home school her children rather than enroll them in a public school implementing the standards.

“Twitter is a much more open and democratic space for policy debates,” said Christopher Lubienski, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied how experts and non-experts contribute to media debates on education. “Many of those prominent players in the Twittersphere around topics like the common core have relatively little formal expertise on the topic,” he said.

Mr. Petrilli, another prolific tweeter in the study, argued social media has enriched common core and other education conversations by providing “a format where there’s more interaction between policy wonks like me and rank-and-file teachers,” Mr. Petrilli said. “That never could have happened before. I do think my own views have changed some and evolved some based on strong arguments I’ve heard from teachers.”

With the exception of “transcenders” like Mr. Petrilli who bridged different groups, the researchers found the groups for and against the common core generally did not operate in the same Twitter-user networks. The researchers are already conducting a follow-up study of more than 305,000 new tweets by 81,000 commenters from April to November 2014, and co-author Mr. Daly reported that early analysis suggests the Twitter advocates for and against the standards are getting more vociferous and entrenched.

“I think that the common core is not unique, but it’s atypical, in that [non-education] advocacy groups have used it to spark interest in their base issues,” Mr. Supovitz said. “This could be a harbinger of the increasingly publicized policymaking in professional areas.”

If so, it seems to be working. Even when they don’t have a social media presence themselves, Mr. Supovitz argued, lawmakers and education officials “are very aware of these policy conversations, and they feel the press of them.”

That pressure was visible last month at a South Carolina public question-and-answer session with Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich. The potential 2016 presidential hopeful called opposition to the common core “to a large degree, [a] runaway Internet campaign.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Study: Twitter Fanned Debate on Standards


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