Blog: The Educated Reporter

Gallup Poll Finds More Confusion Over Common Core

Gallup Poll Finds More Confusion Over Common Core

I spoke with Bill Bushaw, executive director of Phi Delta Kappa, about the new PDK/Gallup poll findings.

The nation’s longest-running poll on education issues – conducted by PDK/Gallup –  is out, and there’s plenty of ammunition for a wide range of education policy battlegrounds, from high-stakes testing to early childhood education to school choice. One caveat before I give you a relatively quick breakdown on the PDK/Gallup highlights: As I’ve previously mentioned, polls provide a snapshot, not a litmus test. PDK/Gallup talked to about 1,000 Americans 18 and older, and about 40 percent of them had earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, which is consistent with the national average.

From the 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward Public Schools:

The “Most Likely to Get the Headline” contenders:

  • PDK/Gallup added its first-ever question on the new Common Core State Standards, nearly two-thirds of the Americans polled had never heard of the initiative, which is poised to remake how public education is delivered in the majority of the nation’s states. But perhaps more troubling for advocates of the new standards, “most of those who say they know about the Common Core neither understand it nor embrace it.” 
  • Americans overall don’t want teachers and school administrators to carry weapons on campus, and believe children are safe at school. Parents of school-aged children who were polled were similarly opposed. 
  • Less than a quarter of Americans believe the increase in standardized testing has improved public schools, and the majority of them don’t support using student test data to evaluate teachers.
  • When asked if they supported “providing free education benefits to the children of immigrants who are in the United States illegally,” 44 percent of respondents said they were in favor of it. That finding changes significantly when the results are broken down by political affiliations: Republicans (19 percent); Democrats (66 percent) and Independents (41 percent). 

In the “Also Worth Noting” category:

  • Nearly three-quarters of the Americans polled believed preschool programs would help children from poor families do better in school in their teenage years, and 63 percent supported using tax revenue to support expanded early childhood education.
  • Lack of financial support was again listed as the biggest challenge facing public schools (35 percent), with lack of discipline a distance second at 8 percent and overcrowded schools in third place with 7 percent. 
  • Opposition to publicly funded vouchers that would help parents cover the cost of private school tuition soared, to 70 percent from 55 percent last year – the highest rate recorded in the poll’s history. Also on the school choice front, charter schools got a slight boost with 68 percent of respondents saying they supported the idea of the independently operated, publicly funded campuses, up from 66 percent last year.

And “Some Interesting Data Likely to Be Overshadowed:”

  • Poll respondents overwhelmingly (80 percent) supported allowing children who are homeschooled to participate in sports and extracurricular activities at their neighborhood campuses.
  • Adding more mental health services at schools was nearly twice as likely to be viewed as an effective means of promoting school safety as hiring additional security guards (59 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • The majority of Americans polled “have trust and confidence” in teachers (70 percent) and principals (65 percent).

I was hardly surprised by the poll’s finding that there’s confusion about the Common Core. Back in May at EWA’s National Seminar, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a roomful of reporters that he personally had to reassure what he described as a “high-ranking state leader” that the Common Core wasn’t a prescribed curriculum that schools would be required to follow. Rather, Duncan said, it’s a set of challenging expectations for what students would learn grade by grade. I later confirmed Duncan was referring to the governor of one of the 46 states that had agreed to adopt the new standards. (One side note: While the initiative might not be curriculum in the traditional sense of the word, the new standards will certainly shape and inform what happens in classrooms, and how teachers teach.)

This has been a rough couple of months for the Common Core, with its advocates trying to restore the atmosphere of bipartisan goodwill that first resulted in the new standards to be voluntarily adopted by states, and opponents criticizing the initiative as a heavy-handed federal intrusion that will turn teachers into automatons. It will be interesting to see if the PDK/Gallup poll findings spur any new outreach efforts at the local level, or a shift in the messaging campaigns.

As for school safety, President Obama is pushing Congress to provide additional funding for more mental health and guidance services for students, and the poll’s findings seem to support that approach. And when it comes to arming educators, we already know that some lawmakers are more enthusiastic about the prospect than the school personnel who would actually be the ones packing heat.

I asked Bill Bushaw, executive director of PDK, what surprised him about this year’s poll findings, and he told me it was the public support for homeschooling, and for allowing homeschooled students to participate in sports and activities at their local campuses.

“Frankly, that was shocking to me,” Bushaw said. “If I was a school superintendent, I would be looking at those (poll) questions very carefully and asking myself, ‘am I providing enough support for families who for whatever reason, religious or otherwise, have decided to homeschool their children.’”

So how accurate or useful is the data? Education polls often ask unprepared people to make “finely nuanced distinctions” without the requisite background, said Andrew Rotherham, who cofounded Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “You get a result, but you also get a lot of noise,” Rotherham told me.

If the PDK/Gallup poll’s findings suggest a pushback against too much standardized testing, that’s a conclusion supported by recent protests involving educators, students, and parents in school districts from New York to Texas to Washington State. But it’s important to remember how a poll question is phrased has as much to do with the answers as people’s actual opinions.

The PDK/Gallup findings come on the heels of two other education polls also released this week – from the Associated Press-NORC Center  for Public Affairs Research, and from the conservative journal EducationNext.

Rotherham noted that all three of the education polls  asked questions about testing, but with slightly different wording – which yielded a wide range of results. (That’s an angle Paul Peterson, the Harvard University professor who oversaw EducationNext’s poll, also explores.)

“Everyone wants to leap on one data point and try and use it to discredit another poll’s findings,” said Rotherham, who writes the Eduwonk blog. “A more appropriate approach is to triangulate – to recognize that all of these polls have strengths and weaknesses, and they all tell part of the story.”