On Common Core, can two polls this different both be right?

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year! No, not Christmas (though this lapsed Jew increasingly finds the Christmas season enchanting). It’s Education Poll Season!

A few weeks ago we had Education Next’s annual poll. Yesterday was Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup. And over the next couple weeks there will be results from the less heralded but no-less-awesome poll put out by USC Rossier and Policy Analysis for California Education [1]. It’s great that all of these polls come out at once because:

  1. It’s so easy to directly compare the results across the polls (at least when they ask similar enough questions).
  2. It’s so easy to spot hilariously (and presumably, maliciously) bad poll-related chicanery.

In today’s analysis, I’m going to discuss results from these and other polls pertaining to public support for the Common Core standards. I’ve done a little of this in the past, but I think there are important lessons to be learned from the newest poll results.

Finding 1. Support for the Common Core is probably decreasing. Education Next asked about Common Core in the same way in consecutive years. Last year they found a 54/26 margin in favor; this year it was 49/35. PDK asked about Common Core last year and saw 60/33 opposition; this year it was 54/24. In both cases the opposition margin has increased, though not by much in PDK. The PACE/USC Rossier poll will add to this by tracking approval using the same questions we have used in previous years.

Finding 2. Voters still don’t know much about Common Core. In PDK, 39% of voters reported having heard just a little or not at all about Common Core (I’m also counting “don’t know” here, which seems to me to have a very similar meaning to “not at all”). In Education Next, 58% of respondents did not know whether Common Core was being implemented in their district, an even more direct test of knowledge. While neither of the polls this year also asked respondents factual questions about the standards to gauge misconceptions, I’m quite confident they’re still high given what polls found last year. The PACE/USC Rossier Poll will add to this by testing the prevalence of a variety of misconceptions about the standards.

Finding 3. Folks continue to like almost everything about Common Core other than the name. For instance, Education Next finds that voters overwhelmingly support using the same standardized test in each state (61/22), which aligns with the federal government’s efforts in supporting the consortia to build new assessments. Voters also are quite favorable toward math and reading standards that are the same across states (54/30). Finally, PDK finds that voters are much more likely to say their state’s academic standards are too low (39%) than too high (6%), which supports the decisions states are making with respect to new Common Core cut scores.

Finding 4It seems likely that the wording of Common Core questions matters for the support level reported, but we don’t have enough good evidence to say for sure. Education Next was criticized last year for the wording of their Common Core question, which was

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use the Common Core, which are 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 the Common Core standards in your state?

The question was criticized for invoking accountability, which most folks are in favor of. Because the folks at Education Next are savvy and responsive to criticism, they tested the effect of invoking accountability, asking the same question but without the “In the states …” question and found support fell to 40/37. Though PDK was criticized last year for their question, they appear to have stuck with the same questionable item. The PACE/Rossier poll directly tests both the 2014 PDK and Education Next questions, plus two other support/opposition questions, in order to clearly identify the impact of question wording on support.

Finding 5. As compared to every other reasonably scientific poll I’ve seen that asks about Common Core, PDK produces the most extreme negative results. Here are all the polls I have found from the last two years and their support/opposition numbers (sorted in order from most to least favorable):

Public Policy Institute of California 2014 (CA): 69/22 (+47)

Education Next 2014: 54/26 (+28)

NBC News 2014: 59/31 (+28)

Public Policy Institute of California 2015 (CA): 47/31 (+16)

Education Next 2015: 49/35 (+14)

Friedman Foundation 2015: 40/39 (+1)

University of Connecticut 2014: 38/44 (-6)

PACE/USC Rossier 2014 (CA): 38/44 or 32/41, depending on question (-6, -9)

Louisiana State University 2015 (LA): 39/51 (-12)

Monmouth University 2015 (NJ): 19/37 (-18)

Times Union/Siena College 2014 (NY): 23/46 (-23)

Fairleigh Dickinson 2015: 17/40 (-23)

PDK 2014: 33/60 (-27)

PDK 2015: 24/54 (-30)

Only one other national poll in the past two years comes within 20 points (!) of the negative margin found by PDK – anything else that’s that negative comes out of a state that’s had particularly chaotic or controversial implementation. Now, it could be that PDK’s results are right and everyone else’s are wrong, but when you stack them up with the others it sure looks like there’s something strange in those findings. It might be the question wording (again, since PACE/USC Rossier is using their exact wording, we can test this), but my guess is it’s something about the sample or the questions they ask before this one. This result just seems too far outside the mainstream to be believed, in my opinion.

Finding 6. The usual suspects of course pounced on the PDK poll to score points. Randi Weingarten used the results on Twitter to make some point about toxic testing (the use of a buzzphrase like that is a pretty clear sign that your analysis isn’t so serious). At the opposite end of the spectrum (which, increasingly, is the same end of the spectrum), Neal McCluskey said the results showed Common Core was getting clobbered (though, to his credit, he questioned the strange item wording and also wrote about Education Next last week, albeit in a somewhat slanted way).

So there we have it. Common Core support is down. But if you don’t call it Common Core and you ask people what they want, they want something very Common Core-like. They still haven’t heard much about Common Core, and most of what they think they know is wrong. And they almost certainly aren’t as opposed as PDK finds them to be. That’s the state of play on Common Core polling as of now. Our poll, coming out in a couple weeks, will address some of the major gaps described above and contribute to a deeper understanding of the support for the standards.


[1] Disclosure: Along with David Plank and Julie Marsh, I’m one of the three main architects of this poll.

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