Politics & Policy

Common Core Cant

Advocates cite dubious polling to support their claim that the issue is settled.

With the Common Core State Standards encountering remarkable political turbulence, you might think advocates would focus their energies on making their case and answering critics. After all, just yesterday Indiana became the first state to reverse its decision to adopt the Common Core. Instead, leading advocates seem intent on using junk polling to say, “There’s nothing to see here.”

Yesterday, the Collaborative for Student Success — a mishmash of substantial educational philanthropies — released a poll that purported to show that Americans love the Common Core even if they don’t know it. The new poll showed that two-thirds of respondents like the Common Core and that one-third “strongly” support it. This is pretty remarkable given that, just last summer, over 60 percent of respondents told Gallup they had never heard of the Common Core. What explains the remarkable shift? It turns out that the positive response was elicited after pollsters read just “a single sentence describing” the Common Core.

#ad#That “single sentence” explained: “To ensure that all students are prepared for success after graduation, the Common Core Standards establish a set of clear, consistent guidelines for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level across subjects.” (The astonishing thing is that 24 percent of respondents disapproved even after this explanation.) Fifty-seven percent of Republicans reportedly support the Common Core, thus described, and 60 percent of respondents would be more likely to vote for a pro–Common Core candidate. 

The poll also tested three “aspects” of the Common Core. The pollsters reported that 83 percent of national respondents thought it good when told that “the standards emphasize real understanding of mathematical concepts — not just memorization.” Seventy-two percent were pleased to hear that “the standards focus on fewer topics and allow teachers to cover them all in greater depth.” And 81 percent approved when told that “the English Language Arts standards focus on critical analysis and thoughtful, complicated ideas.” You rarely see outfits publicly release — much less aggressively promote — push polling that’s this crude. After all, you kind of wonder that any respondents at all opposed English teaching focused on “thoughtful, complicated ideas.”

The survey was conducted by the Tarrance Group (billed as “a Republican firm”) and David Binder Research (billed as “a Democratic firm”). It’s pretty remarkable that they’d put their brand on this. After all, most professional pollsters tend to show at least a shred of concern for their public reputation. 

This is becoming a familiar tactic for Common Core advocates. Just a few weeks ago, Common Core proponent Achieve, Inc., released its annual survey with an analysis claiming that “solid majorities of voters support common standards [and] common assessments.” The problem with this claim? As Cato’s Neal McCluskey has pointed out, “Of the people who reported knowing about the Common Core — those not relying on the loaded description of the Core . . . — 40 percent reported having unfavorable opinions of the Core, versus 37 percent favorable.” How did Achieve explain away this inconvenient finding? It argued that “it is likely this mixed number is attributable to CCSS opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative ‘impression’ among voters.”

Common Core advocates have long seemed less inclined to answer questions and concerns than to insist that the issue is settled and it’s time to move on. The presumption seems to be that cheap PR and grandiose claims have worked swimmingly thus far and it would be a shame to change course now. That’s certainly one tack. But they might do better to spend more time making their case and less insisting that they’ve already won.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His books include Common Core Meets Education Reform.

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