The Education Gadfly Weekly, Volume 14, Number 34: What's behind the declining support for the Common Core?

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Results from the annual Education Next poll are out this week, and the news is not good for us proponents of the Common Core. Support among the public dropped from 65 percent to 53 percent in just one year (from June 2013 to June 2014); Republicans are now almost evenly split on the issue, with 43 percent in support, and 37 percent opposed. What’s more, the new PDK/Gallup poll (out today) corroborates these trends and offers even worse news, finding that a majority of the public, and three-fourths of Republicans, now oppose the Common Core. Finally, Education Next found that support from teachers plummeted from 76 to 46 percent in just twelve months.

Nobody who has been following the public debate should be particularly surprised, at least when it comes to the overall numbers or those for Republicans. (The results for teachers are another matter; more on that in a bit.) After two punishing years of legislative assaults, Tea Party attacks, implementation controversies, and negative stories in conservative media, it’s a bit of a miracle that the numbers aren’t even worse. (Still, let’s be honest: these numbers are plenty depressing.)

I see two silver linings for those of us who still think the Common Core has great potential to improve American education:

  1. While the Common Core “brand” is damaged, the concept is still popular. Education Next (where I’m an executive editor) ran an experiment, asking half of respondents to provide their views on the “Common Core,” and the other half to respond to a description of the reform without the label. Asked the latter way, support jumps from 53 percent to 68 percent; Republican support in particular bounces way up, eliminating any partisan divide. And the reason the PDK/Gallup poll got such negative numbers was that they asked about “Common Core” sans any description. As NPR explains in this excellent analysis, those two words have become “toxic.”
  2. Misperceptions are driving down support; fix those misunderstandings, and support may return. The most fascinating part of the Education Next poll was a series of questions that amounted to a test of respondents’ knowledge about the Common Core. Is it a federal mandate? Will it allow private student data to be sent to the federal government? Will it usurp local control over curriculum? The public get every answer wrong; opponents, in particular, believe that Common Core is keeping states and local school districts from “deciding which textbooks and instructional materials to use in their schools.”

So the good news, if there is any, is that these findings indicate some clear strategies for us proponents to adopt. For one, as Mike Huckabee argued a year ago, we should forget about the Common Core brand and defend the idea instead. So states are smart when they talk about, for example, the “Ohio learning standards” instead of the “Common Core.” It makes a difference.

The results also suggest that we need to clear up the misperceptions. The issue around the federal role is no doubt killing us on the right (thank you, Arne Duncan). Still, that’s hard to address; there’s no denying that there were federal incentives for adopting the standards, even if they didn’t amount to a requirement, and what’s done is done. But we surely can do a better job informing frustrated parents that they are, in fact, empowered to do something about the lousy math textbooks schools are assigning their children: they can—and should—take it up with their local school boards. Because that’s still where those decisions are made.

Now about the teachers

The biggest surprise—and what’s driving the news—is the finding that teacher support has fallen sharply. It’s not surprising that support is down—we can tell from the behavior of the unions this summer that concern is growing among the teacher ranks. But other data—such as results from a Gates-funded survey by Republican pollster Dave Winston—indicate that support is down a bit but still strong. So how to explain the thirty-point drop in the Education Next poll?

It might have something to do with the way the question was worded. See for yourself:

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 these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Note the phrase, “they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” Perhaps these words triggered the more negative response. (They might also explain why so many Republicans support the idea when the Common Core label is not applied.)

At least I hope that’s the case, because we need the support of the teachers if this reform is going to survive politically and thrive educationally, which—despite this week’s depressing poll results—I still earnestly believe the Common Core is going to do.


Morgan Polikoff

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Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

No, this isn’t another blog about teachers. I’m talking textbooks. We need good textbooks in front of kids just as badly as we need good teachers. However, from a research and policy perspective, improving textbook quality is a lot easier.

A little-noticed report last week in Education Week described a new initiative intended to be the Consumer Reports of textbooks. A new nonprofit called EdReports plans to post “free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” If they’re careful, credible, and diligent, this initiative could turn the lights up on a largely ignored factor in student outcomes that is ripe for analysis and improvement. And it could even blunt some of the more pointed criticisms of the Common Core. Here’s why I think EdReports, textbooks, and other curricular materials, in general, matter:

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks. They don’t need due process protections, and it’s unlikely that the choice to replace an old textbook with a new one will result in onerous court cases. In short, the politics of improving instruction through textbooks is substantially less perilous than through focusing on teacher quality.

Second, textbooks and online curricular materials can be improved over time through research and tinkering in ways that teacher effectiveness cannot. Especially if we collect better data, we potentially could learn about effectiveness at a granular level—for instance, which of these X lessons is the best at getting Y type of kids to learn division of fractions? And once we do learn about better lessons, those benefits can be carried forward to anyone who uses them (as opposed to improving individual teachers, where those improvements mainly apply to the one teacher and vanish when he leaves).

Third, textbooks are incredibly cheap relative to other educational inputs. While U.S. schools spend billions on textbooks annually, the per-student cost of curriculum materials is, at most, 1 or 2 percent. Furthermore, the marginal cost of choosing one textbook over another is virtually zero because textbooks tend to be comparably priced. So, given that quality research shows substantial differences in textbook effectiveness, choosing a high-quality textbook over a low-quality one may be as effective as moving kids from a fiftieth-percentile teacher to a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher. This may be as close as is possible in education policy to getting something for nothing.

Last, at least in principle, the Common Core offers tremendous advantages in terms of improving textbook quality and getting effective textbooks in more teachers’ hands. This new nearly-national market means that publishers no longer have to (though they very well may continue to) ensure every textbook covers every topic that conceivably might be covered in every state’s standards, as was the case in the NCLB era. And when textbook improvements are made, they can be adopted immediately almost nationwide.

While this all sounds remarkably optimistic, there are a number of reasons why textbooks may not be the catalyst for improvement that they should be. By far the most important reason is that data on textbooks—their quality, alignment to standards, and appropriateness for various groups—is virtually impossible to come by. Matt Chingos and Russ Whitehurst described this situation as districts “choosing blindly,” and that description is remarkably apt. This is exactly the hole that EdReports is trying to fill.

We have few rigorous, causal studies on textbook quality on which to draw, but we do have a handful of randomized experiments (which are very large and expensive) and quality quasi-experimental studies (including two by Rachana Bhatt and Cory Koedel) that indicate what might be possible. Quasi-experimental studies in particular would be cheap and easy, if only states kept track of school and district textbook-adoption data. Unfortunately, this basic piece of data is tracked by few states and not made publicly available in any usable form. Thus, enterprising young researchers seeking to investigate textbook effects must seek grants to pull together the data as best they can.

In terms of textbook alignment to standards, again there’s little quality data out there. Bill Schmidt and I have each researched “Common Core–aligned” textbooks and found them to be lacking, and there are tools available to gauge alignment, but there’s nothing on any meaningful scale in this area, either.

Finally, not a day goes by without another Common Core outrage—a ridiculous math worksheet or homework assignment or an ill-conceived writing prompt—being paraded around social media as an example of “Common Core curriculum.” Another reason I am excited about EdReports is that a third-party effort to police materials produced in the Common Core’s name could call out the worst offenders, much as PolitiFact polices political claims or debunks urban legends.

Although I am optimistic about their efforts—I suspect any information is better than no information—I do not think one set of reviews will solve our problems. Rather, what we really need is an intensive data collection and analysis effort aimed at understanding what a quality textbook looks like and how we can get it in the hands of teachers. Given the importance and ubiquity of textbooks, it is long past time to get serious about improving these materials.

Morgan Polikoff is an assistant professor of K12 policy at the USC Rossier School of Education and an alumnus of Fordham and AEI’s Emerging Education Policy Scholars program. He researches the design, implementation, and effects of standards, assessment, and accountability policies.


New York State just released the results of its 2014 statewide math and reading exams—the second year the state purportedly aligned the tests to the Common Core. Compared to 2013, math proficiency rates rose 5 percentage points, but reading was flat. Both friends and foes of the Common Core sought to spin the results to say whether the reform is working, but it’s way too early for such judgments. On the other hand, it’s not too early to investigate out how Eva Moskowitz and her team are getting such incredible results at her Success Academies, which doubled New York City proficiency rates in reading and tripled them in math.

Much is afoot in the Louisiana court battle over the Common Core and aligned exams. Hearings over the last two weeks have brought mixed results for Bobby Jindal. Plaintiffs’ lawyers won’t be able to depose the governor. But the judge rejected the state’s request to throw out parts of the suit, deciding to hear the full merits of the case, and thwarted Jindal’s attempt to use his executive powers to repeal the standards and suspend the PARCC test. Needless to say, the Pelican State’s purely political mess continues. And the man at the helm has no Plan B (except to run for president).

In response to the swelling pushback against the newly revised AP U.S. History Framework, the College Board has released a practice exam, written a letter, and vowed to “clarify” the most besieged parts of the framework. This is good news all around because some of the complaints were well-founded (some, however, weren’t). Plus the sample test looks great, and the College Board’s openness to change is laudable.

Most reformers know there’s no cure-all for American education. Nevertheless, in The Science and Success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, the authors argue that a panacea not only exists but has been around for half a century. The book is a collection of essays about different aspects of “Direct Instruction” (DI), a teaching method developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann, which holds that clear instruction and eliminating misconceptions can drastically improve and accelerate learning. Part I, “The Scientific Basis of Direct Instruction,” comprises four essays, including one by Engelmann himself about DI’s theory and development. The other three include a summation of studies examining its effectiveness, an explanation of why the results of supportive research have been ignored (it must be noted that a What Works Clearinghouse review found insufficient evidence to determine whether Direct Instruction was an effective method for teaching beginning reading), and a third-party perspective of Engelmann’s long career. The second part, “Translating the Science to Schools,” tackles the practicalities of application. There are essays about efficient DI implementation, how DI fosters good behavior, and possible futures of education with and without the teaching method. Although authors make a good case for Engelmann’s theory by showcasing the plethora of largely ignored, pro-DI research, their insistence that his system is some sort magic elixir hurts their credibility. For example, editor Jean Stockard proclaims, “Engelmann has clearly found the answer to low achievement and to the problems of our schools.” And Shepard Barbash argues that reworking DI programs to align with the Common Core is like “reformulating the polio vaccine to win a popularity contest.” Yet, despite such hyperbole, the book accomplishes at least one goal: the reader walks away with an extensive understanding of Direct Instruction and its history of success.

SOURCE: Jean Stockard, ed., The Science and Success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. Eugene, OR: NIFDI Press, 2014.

We know that disadvantaged children tend to enter Kindergarten behind their more advantaged peers in math and reading—and that they rarely catch up. But which socioeconomic factors correlate most with these gaps? And have these factors improved over time? Analysts looked at data compiled by NCES’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011 (ECLS-K:2011), which is currently following a representative sample of 15,000 students through fifth grade. The cohort’s Kindergarten readiness (or, actually, lack thereof) was strongly linked to four risk factors: having a single parent, having a mother who didn’t graduate high school, living below the federal poverty line, and living in a household where English was not spoken as the first language. (Kindergarten readiness was measured with direct assessments and teacher reports.) Fifty-six percent of children had zero risk factors, 25 percent had one, 13 percent had two, and 6 percent had three or four. The more risk factors a child had, the lower his or her assessment score. What’s more, these rates haven’t improved over time. An earlier iteration of the ECLS followed the Kindergarten class of 1998–99. Back then, 58 percent of kids had zero risk factors—almost exactly the same as the class of 2011. What’s not clear from the study is how to address the lack of progress in Kindergarten readiness, though likely candidates include improving pre-school, promoting the “success sequence,” and alleviating poverty—all of which are easier said than done.

SOURCE: Sara Bernstein, et al., “Kindergartners' Skills at School Entry: An Analysis of the ECLS-K,” Mathematica Policy Research (June 2014).

Michelle and Robert unpack New York State’s test-score results, applaud the launch of a “Consumer Reports” for Common Core textbooks, and measure the deep impact of ed-policy polls. Amber sums up the many poll results that weren’t about the CCSS.

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. Experts will tackle these fears and claims at Fordham on October 23, 2013. Hear from Jason Zimba on math myths, Tim Shanahan on the texts that teachers may assign, and a panel of practicing K--12 educators for an early look at Common Core implementation in their states and districts.
Common Core math myths: A conversation with Jason Zimba
Are teachers assigning Common Core aligned texts? A conversation with Tim Shanahan
An early look at Common Core implementation: A panel discussion
Moderated by Michael Petrilli