Politics & Policy

What the Public Really Thinks of the Common Core

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The Common Core debate rolls merrily along. It’s made the occasional appearance in the contest for the GOP nomination — popping up occasionally between new Trumpisms and debate postmortems — and as states have released results on the new Common Core tests. This has all fueled any number of claims about what Americans think of the Common Core, much of it informed by push polls and agenda-driven analysis. The result, as one Washington Post headline put it earlier this year, is that the media have generally concluded:  “Conservatives hate Common Core. The rest of America? Who knows.”

In truth, there are numbers that offer a clear take on public sentiment and how it’s evolved when it comes to the Common Core. There are two national, annual polls of attitudes towards education: one by Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa and the other by Education Next (of which I’m an executive editor). Today, these are the only credible, independent numbers providing a year-over-year measure of national sentiment.

Conveniently, both organizations released their 2015 surveys a few weeks back, timed to coincide with the start of the 2015–16 school year. Between 2010 and 2015, each survey featured two Common Core questions that were asked more than once.

In 2012 and 2013, PDK/Gallup asked: “Do you believe common core standards would help make education in the United States more competitive globally, less competitive globally, or have no effect?” In 2012, 53 percent of respondents said the Common Core would make the U.S. “more competitive” and just 7 percent that it would make the U.S. “less competitive.” Democrats were positive by 65–5 and Republicans by 44–5. In 2013, the pro–Common Core split had declined to 41–21, with Democratic support falling to 46–14 and Republican to 32–26. Support declined among Democrats and Republicans at a similar rate (with enthusiasm actually falling by a larger total amount among Democrats than among Republicans). The question has not been asked since.

The other question that PDK/Gallup has asked more than once is: “Do you favor or oppose having the teachers in your community use the Common Core state standards to guide what they teach?” This question was asked in 2014 and in 2015. In 2014, the public was opposed to teachers’ using the Common Core by a 33–60 margin. Democrats favored teachers’ using the Common Core 53–38, while Republicans were opposed 17–76 and independents 34–60. In 2015, sentiment was broadly unchanged, but Democratic opinion shifted from 53–38 in favor to 35–38 against.

Each year since 2012, Education Next has asked: “As you may know, all states are currently deciding whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math. If adopted, these standards would be used to hold the state’s schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the adoption of the Common Core standards in your state?” In 2012, respondents supported the Common Core 63–7 (support was 63 percent among Republicans and 65 percent among Democrats). By 2015, the margin supporting the Common Core had narrowed to 49–35. Republican sentiment had shifted from63–9 in favor to 37–50 against, and Democratic support had softened from 65–5 to 57–25.

Support on the right melted away between 2012 and 2015, but Democratic support has also steadily softened.

In 2012, 2014, and 2015, Education Next also asked the same question, but without the words “Common Core.” The question reads: “As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use 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 standards in your state?” In 2012, support for these unnamed standards mirrored that for the Common Core, with respondents positive by a lopsided 67–6. In 2015, sentiment was still quite positive, at 54–30, but the margin of support had fallen by more than half. Republican support declined from 69–8 in 2012 to 50–38 in 2015. Democratic support softened from 76–3 in 2012 to 58–24 in 2015.

What’s the bottom line? At least three things are clear. First, sentiment is highly sensitive to how the question is asked. Depending on which of the above questions one selects, it’s possible to argue that the public supports the Common Core by more than two to one or that it opposes it by more than two to one. This should remind us to take any particular set of poll results with more than a few grains of salt.

Second, support for the Common Core remains positive but exhibits a clear downward trend. The four different questions suggest that the margin of pro–Common Core sentiment fell by 26 points (from 2012 to 2013); by three points (2014 to 2015); by 42 points (2012 to 2015); and by 32 points (2012 to 2015). Three of the four suggest a dramatic erosion of support.

Third, support on the right melted away between 2012 and 2015, but Democratic support has also steadily softened. Between 2012 and 2015, Democratic support seems to have declined about eight to ten points. More significantly, the share of Democrats opposed to the Common Core has increased about fivefold — from 5 percent to 25 percent.

For all the fervent spinning, we actually know more than a little about how public sentiment on the Common Core has evolved. The bottom line is that the Common Core is keeping its head above water, for the moment, but things don’t look too promising. 

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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