Parsing Public Opinion on Policy
The several weeks around Labor Day are quickly becoming some of my favorite weeks of the year. Not because it’s back-to-school season (though the college campus does have a much better feel when there’s actually students on it), but because several organizations put out state or national polls on education issues during these weeks. We have two national polls—one from Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) and one from Education Next (EdNext)—and one California poll from USC Rossier and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE/Rossier; I co-lead this poll).
As the presidential election mercifully moves toward its conclusion, there are important education policy questions that will need to be answered in the coming years. Public opinion and its drivers could well influence state and national policy under the new administration, so it is worth evaluating what these polls tell us about college- and career-readiness related policies.
The Common Core Standards have been a major focus of education polling for several years. Self-reported awareness of the standards is moderate, with 48 percent of Californians reporting having heard “a lot” or “some” about the standards in the PACE/Rossier poll. We asked a similar question in 2015 and found that only 41 percent reported knowing “a lot” or “some” about the standards. However, our research suggests that voters who claim knowledge of the standards are actually more likely to be misinformed about them than those who have less knowledge, so these awareness data should be taken with a grain of salt.
As for support for the standards, the available evidence suggests that voters are approximately evenly split. For instance, our poll asked those with some awareness whether they supported the standards and found 44 percent supported and 51 percent opposed (last year we found approximately 47 percent support among those stating an opinion). There is a major partisan split, with Democrats supporting the standards 54/40 and Republicans opposing 30/68. EdNext found 42 percent support and 41 percent opposition, again a roughly even split. They also confirmed a partisan split, with Democrats favoring the standards 48/32 and Republicans opposing 35/53. PDK did not ask directly about support for the standards.
Interestingly, however, a few pieces of evidence suggest that voters like the idea of the standards more than the standards themselves. For instance, support for the standards jumped to 56/28 when EdNext removed the Common Core label and asked instead about “standards for reading and math that are the same across the states [that] will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” EdNext also found that voters prefer assessments that are common across states (a goal of Common Core) by a margin of 62 percent to 23 percent. And PDK found that respondents were much more likely to say their local standards were too low (43 percent) than too high (7 percent)—Common Core is widely credited with raising standards in adopting states.
Assessment & Accountability
Testing has been a hot-button issue for the last several years (coinciding with the Common Core rollout). Voters seem to have mixed feelings about assessment. On the one hand, EdNext finds that the large majority supports annual testing for grades 3-8 (69 percent support, 20 percent oppose). And both EdNext (60/26) and PDK (59/37) find voters strongly oppose letting parents opt their children out of state assessments. These points indicate that voters have some faith in assessment and view it as important.
On the other hand, there are signs of opposition to some of the uses of assessment data. For instance, PACE/Rossier asked voters to rate nine options for measures that could be used to hold schools accountable. Of these nine options, “improving students’ scores on standardized achievement tests” came in last place with 69 percent support (36 percent strongly). In contrast, voters were nearly unanimous that spending education dollars efficiently (96 percent support, 81 percent strongly) and giving students the skills they need to get a job (96 percent support, 78 percent strongly) should be a focus of school accountability.
The PACE/Rossier poll saw similar results when we asked voters about teachers. First, we asked about various proposals for increasing teacher pay. We saw the strongest support for paying teachers more in subject areas where there are shortages (79 percent support, 33 percent strongly). The weakest support was for paying teachers more if their students demonstrate knowledge gains on state tests (63 percent support, 25 percent strongly). Second, we asked voters what defines a good teacher from among seven options. Voters thought improving scores on standardized tests was the least important (30 percent extremely important, 32 percent very important). In contrast, getting students to work hard and try their best was viewed as extremely important by 60 percent of voters (and another 35 percent thought this was very important).
In short, regardless of whether we’re looking at teachers or schools, voters seem to be more skeptical about using state test scores as compared to other policy options.
Overall, the polls did not focus as heavily on standards and assessments as in past years. Still, the results are illuminating. Opposition to Common Core appears to be leveling off at approximately 50/50, though the partisan split means the results of the upcoming election may loom large. However, the findings also suggest that many of the ideas of the standards are popular, indicating that the name itself (and negative misperceptions about the standards) may be driving at least some of the opposition.
As for testing, voters clearly and strongly believe in testing in schools. They see its value and want students to be tested often (presumably to keep track of their progress toward success). But some of the uses of assessments are less popular; voters seem to be wary of using state tests for either school or teacher accountability (at least relative to other potential measures). This suggests that overuse of these assessments for high-stakes purposes may drive increased opposition to Common Core and aligned assessments in the future.
While public opinion on education is far from informed, these results should provide interesting fodder for the winners of state and national elections. What elected officials will do with these results is another important question.
— Morgan Polikoff
Morgan Polikoff is an Associate Professor of Education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. This blog post first appeared on c-sail.org.