Back to school season means it’s also time for the yearly ritual of gauging American attitudes about their public schools. Two major surveys released this week once again show that the public says its local schools are great even though they think U.S. schools overall are in the tank (a mathematical impossibility, by the way). The surveys also highlight some inconsistencies in public thinking as well as widespread acceptance of misinformation, particularly regarding the common core. So let’s start there.
First, what a difference a year makes! The 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll registered a big increase in public awareness about the Common Core State Standards between 2013 and 2014. Last year, only 38 percent said they had heard of them. This year, awareness has more than doubled to 81 percent. But that wasn’t the only shift. Of those who knew about the Common Core in 2013 a majority liked them, but that pendulum swung, too. Now according to PDK, only 33 percent support the new standards while a full 60 percent are opposed.
A new poll from Education Next shows the same downward trend in public support for Common Core as PDK, although EN shows that a majority are still favorable: 53 percent of the public supported them in 2014 compared to 65 percent the year before. EN teased out attitudes by party affiliation and found that Democrats were more far more likely to support Common Core than Republicans — 65 to 43 percent, respectively. Still, even among Republicans, support is significantly higher than PDK reported.
EN also conducted a small randomized experiment. They asked the same question about Common Core standards to one half of the survey pool, except they eliminated the words “Common Core” in the brackets below:
As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?
Now it gets interesting. When the words “Common Core” are eliminated, public support rises from 53 to 68 percent. Moreover, Republicans approved of the non-Common Core statement at the same rate as Democrats. The conflicting poll results could suggest that the Common Core critics are winning the media war. As EN puts it, the words themselves may have become “toxic.” As further evidence, the poll found that the majority of the public believed statements about the Common Core that were not true, such as the federal government requires states to use the Common Core. Yet these beliefs have entered into the information stream and are affecting public attitudes.
Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing a sea change in attitudes. The EN survey raises an issue that should be of major concern: teacher support for the Common Core declined the most. In 2013, a full three-quarters of the teachers polled were in favor of the Common Core. In just one year their support plummeted to slightly less than half (46 percent). One has to wonder if teachers are expressing their frustration with inadequate implementation support. If this is the case, state and district policymakers should pay close attention.
On other topics, the public continues to view public schooling as a mostly local concern, according to PDK. The majority of the public — 56 percent — say local school boards should have the “greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools,” followed by 28 percent who say the state should, and only 15 percent who say the federal government should. In addition, to know public schools is to love them. Consistent with results of the last 20 years, the public gives public schools nationally poor grades, but grade their local schools highly. In 2014, 50 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents gave their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ compared to 17 percent who gave the nation’s schools high grades. However, this represents a slight drop from 2013 overall.
Both PDK and EN found that the public continues to like the idea of charter schools. But the polls conflict over voucher support. PDK reported that nearly two-thirds of the public opposed vouchers, while EN showed that about half support vouchers for students in “failing public schools” and even for “universal vouchers.” Surprisingly, only a third told EN they would support vouchers for low-income families.
As always, polls can be useful in understanding what the public is thinking. But this year’s polling seems to further cast a light on winners and losers in communicating their messages. — Patte Barth