Americans Like Their Schools Just Fine — But Not Yours

Aug 23, 2016
Originally published on August 25, 2016 2:05 pm

As a new school year gets underway, the Common Core remains a partisan flashpoint, while Americans overall have serious concerns about the direction of our public education system. That's according to two new polls.

Education Next, a policy journal, released its 10th annual large national poll of public opinion on education today. And Gallup, the polling organization, has recently released new figures as well.

With results broken out along partisan lines, the polls also provide insight into trends that may affect the current presidential campaign.

Here's a roundup of key findings:

Common Core: Like the idea, hate the name

EdNext says support for the Common Core State Standards, the K-12 math and English standards initially adopted in 45 states, has plummeted in a relatively short time. In 2012, the first year EdNext asked about them, 90 percent of those who had an opinion favored the standards. This year, the number had sunk to 50 percent.

"The decline in Common Core support is largely due to two factors," says Lorraine McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has conducted her own studies of public opinion on Common Core. "One, respondents' limited knowledge of what it is and who is responsible for it. And, two, its politicization by Tea Party adherents, the testing opt-out movement and some political candidates."

A quick search of the hashtag #commoncore on Twitter turns up negative posts from both ends of the political spectrum, including from self-described Trump supporters.

But there's an interesting wrinkle in these results.

When you ask Americans how they feel about "the use of the same standards across states," two-thirds say they approve. That figure has also declined in the past four years, but not as dramatically.

Of course "the same standards across states" is basically the definition of Common Core. Republicans seem especially allergic to the Common Core "brand." When the name is mentioned, approval plummets 22 points; the difference is 10 points for Democrats.

McDonnell observes that for more than 15 years, even before Common Core was introduced, many surveys, like this one, have found support for cross-state or national standards. "[Those terms] are concrete and understandable to the public and largely untinged by political rhetoric."

Growing red state-blue state divides

Partisan divides on education policy are wide. But they can be unpredictable.

In the Gallup poll, just 32 percent of Republicans approve of the nation's K-12 education system, while 53 percent of Democrats feel the same. Just two years ago, both were tied at 48 percent approval. Gallup authors suggest that Common Core rhetoric is part of the reason.

EdNext found that 74 percent of Republicans now back charter schools, compared with just 58 percent of Democrats — still a strong majority, although Democratic-leaning interest groups Black Lives Matter and the NAACP have both recently called for a moratorium on new charter schools. On the other hand, Dems are now more likely than Republicans to favor school vouchers and tuition tax credits for public schools, both traditional GOP proposals.

Up close looks better than far away

Another result worth highlighting: In the EdNext poll, Americans' opinions of their local public schools have risen considerably over the past decade. More than half — 55 percent — give the school in their community an "A" or "B" rating, compared with just 43 percent a decade ago.

It's hard to find an empirical reason for this warming of opinion. Student performance, at least as measured by test scores, isn't improving.

Still, there may be a sense that "schools are evolving and changing," says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "All this talk about innovation may be getting into the water. For me as a parent of two kids in school, the Common Core, for example, has been positive."

However, public opinion of the nation's schools overall, as opposed to one's local school, is much lower: Just 25 percent would give an A or B grade to American schools as a whole.

Similarly, although the Gallup poll found public approval of U.S. education at a low ebb, parents like their own kids' schools. Seventy-six percent say they are satisfied with the education their oldest child has been receiving. That figure has been pretty stable for 16 years. And there's no partisan divide on that question at all.

Nothing new about this, says McDonnell: "With regard to different ratings for local schools vs. public schools in general ... that finding is a long-standing one."

She compares it to the gap between how Americans view Congress in general with opinions of one's own representative.

For example, this month Gallup reported that just 18 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. However, the last time they asked, 54 percent approved of the job their own representative was doing.

In psychology, this is known as the "mere-exposure" effect: Essentially, people tend to like things better the more they are familiar with them.

"Even people without school-age children have some limited knowledge of their local schools, from the media, their neighbors, following the sports teams," says McDonnell. "So they are inclined to be less judgmental about them than they are about public schools in general, whose image is somewhat vague and increasingly negative though media images."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's that time of year. Students are heading to school with their pencils sharpened, new clothes and lots of anticipation. As the school year kicks off, two new polls find that Americans overall have serious concerns about the direction of the public education system.

Specifically, public opinion of the Common Core, a system of national standards designed to lift low student achievement, is at an all-time low itself. Here's Anya Kamenetz of NPR Ed Team.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: So this is the poll from a policy journal called Education Next. And when they first started asking about the Common Core just four years ago in 2012, when it was brand new, it garnered 90 percent approval.

And this year, the numbers sank to 50 percent, which is an all-time low. But in this same Ed Next poll, when you ask about using, quote, "the same standards across states," two-thirds gave their approval.

MONTAGNE: Which suggests, I guess, that it's partially the brand that people are reacting to - or even the name.

KAMENETZ: So a political science expert I spoke with said that the Common Core as a brand has been extremely politicized, particularly within the Republican Party. And, for example, I did a search of the hashtag #CommonCore on Twitter.

And you see references right away to things like - you know, this is going to indoctrinate our children into Islamic Sharia law. And a lot of self-described Trump supporters are anti-Common Core. Then again, for parents and teachers who actually have experience with the Common Core, there's been real substantive concerns raised.

There is an entire activist movement about opting out of the tests associated with the Common Core. There's been concerns raised about the implementation, about teacher training, even about the approach to math. So it may not just be about the branding but about people's experiences with the Common Core in the real world.

MONTAGNE: And what about Americans' opinions of schools as a whole?

KAMENETZ: Well, this is really interesting. So Ed Next found that just 1 in 4 Americans would give the schools in general an A or B grade - the public schools. And Gallup, which also has, in recent numbers, found a partisan divide here - but still pretty low.

Just 32 percent of Republicans would approve of public schools. Fifty-three percent of Democrats approve of public schools. And that gap has opened up - that partisan gap - just in the last two years.

MONTAGNE: But there's - what? - also a contradiction?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So Americans' approval of their own children's school or their local school is much, much higher. In the Ed Next poll, 55 percent would give their local schools an A or B grade. And that number has actually risen 12 points since 2007.

And in the Gallup poll, they found that three-quarters of parents approve of the education their oldest child has received. So that's the - you know, speaking from personal experience, they really are happy. And that's been steady for over a decade with no partisan divide.

And, you know, this is an effect that we can see in a lot of different situations with public opinion. It's sometimes called the mere-exposure effect, the idea that what we're familiar with is a lot more appealing to us than, you know, things that are farther away that we may only learn about through the media.

MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team, thanks very much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.