Political polarization is making it increasingly difficult to sustain support for policy undertakings that a majority of the public supports. Narrow interest groups and small minorities are twisting public opinion through slogans and rhetoric to which sensation-mongering elements in the media are giving excessive attention. Such is my conclusion after reviewing eight years of Education Next (Ednext) polling on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Since 2007, the Ednext survey has been administered annually to a nationally representative sample of the public and, in most years, to a nationally representative sample of teachers. Each year a strong majority of the public has expressed support for federal efforts to hold schools accountable by requiring that students be tested in reading and math. Furthermore, majorities want those tests to be informed by national standards. Yet the tools the government has tried to use to achieve these goals—NCLB and Common Core, for example—have been damaged by the powerful microphone the media has given to those Vice-President Spiro Agnew once called the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
When the public is asked about national standards and federal testing in a context uncontaminated by politicized name-calling, sizeable majorities back the idea. But when labels are put on those policies—whether the label be Common Core or NCLB—then levels of support decline, despite the fact that the public has little knowledge about policy specifics.
In the just-released 2014 Ednext survey of a nationally representative sample of the general public, no less than 68% of the public registers support for the following (if the material in brackets is deleted):
[Common Core] 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.
Only 16% express opposition, the remainder saying they “neither support nor oppose the standards.” The level of public support remains essentially unchanged from its level in 2012.
Yet the simple addition of the bracketed phrase “Common Core” induces a drop in the level of public support from 68% to 53% and opposition rises from 16% to 26%. The Common Core label now has a toxic impact on public thinking. See Figure 1.
That is something new. In both the 2012 and 2013 polls, public opinion for the Common Core version of this question was 63% and 65%, respectively, nearly as high as when the label was not applied.
The fall-off in support is to be found among Republicans (from 57% to 43%), while Democratic opinion is essentially the same no matter which way the question is worded, a sure sign that partisan politics is playing a key role—especially since Republicans remain as supportive as Democrats if asked the plain vanilla version of the question.
The fall in public support for Common Core in 2014 has occurred despite the fact that 43 percent of the public say they have not heard about Common Core standards. Among those who say they have heard of them, a sizeable percentage misperceive its clearly stated principles.
(Methodological note: The Ednext survey of several thousand respondents administered annually since 2007 conducts experiments by randomly splitting its sample into two groups. In this instance, one was asked a Common Core version of the national standards question, while the other was asked the plain vanilla version. Experiments were conducted in 2012 and 2014. For details, see the essay on the 2014 survey by Michael Henderson, Martin West and myself as well as the responses to all the Ednext survey questions).
The change in public opinion over the past year is almost certainly due to the aggressive campaign against Common Core mounted by elements on both the left and the right. Teacher unions have called for a moratorium on student testing for fear that teacher performance will be monitored. As a result, teacher support for Common Core has dropped precipitously. Tea Parties claim that national standards violate local control of schools. What coverage the issue receives is known more for its sensationalism than policy specifics.
Common Core is not the only education initiative to be given a “borking,” the term invented after Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork, a Yale law-school professor, to the Supreme Court. Bork’s nomination was never confirmed by the Senate because opponents orchestrated a blazing, misleading campaign that introduced the country to negative campaigning on a massive scale.
So effective is borking that it has since become the strategy of choice whenever interest groups want to stall a popular policy initiative. In 2001, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress passed NCLB, a key initiative of the George W. Bush administration at a time when partisanship had been suppressed by the 9/11 tragedy. But within a few years, the law came under bitter attack by teacher unions, local school officials, and small advocacy groups. Even though student achievement increased after the passage of NCLB, the law was demonized for not having fulfilled its utopian objective of bringing all students up to a level of full proficiency. In 2007 the Ednext poll documented the impact of these attacks on NCLB by asking two versions of the following question (the bracketed words given to one half of the sample, while the other half was asked about “federal legislation”):
As you may know, federal legislation [No Child Left Behind] requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew this federal legislation. What do you think Congress should do?
We provided respondents the opportunity to say they should renew as is, make minor changes, make major changes or not renew at all.
If asked about “federal legislation,”71% of the public responded that no more than minor changes should be made to the law, but only 57% responded in the same way if asked about NCLB. In 2009, only about half the respondents supported NCLB renewal with no more than minor changes, though 60% took that position with respect to “federal legislation.” See Figure 2.
Democrats were more likely to react negatively to just the NCLB name. When Democratic members of the public were given the plain vanilla version of the above question in 2007, no less than 69% supported renewing the law with no more than minimal changes, a level of support hardly different from the 71% support among Republicans. But when the charged name, NCLB, was introduced, Democratic support fell to 48 percent, while Republican support nudged upward to 72 percent.
In other words, Common Core is not the first federal education policy that has been demonized by the political opposition. In the case of NCLB, the consequences were fatal. Though NCLB is still on the books, its provisions go essentially unenforced, as most states have been granted waivers from most provisions. Labeling caused Democrats to turn against an idea that they would otherwise have supported. Later on, it would be the Republicans who would shift when the toxic Common-Core label was applied to national standards.
Still, the public remains supportive of federal testing. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, we asked whether the federal government should require that students be tested annually in reading and math. Approximately two-thirds said yes, and barely a tenth said no, with the rest taking a neutral position.
Despite that high level of public support for school accountability, the practice is at grave risk. Partisan polarization has given special interests and small minorities the power to twist public sentiment along partisan lines, even when bipartisan majorities support the substance of what is being proposed.
—Paul E. Peterson