What Drives Common Core Opposition?

Morgan Polikoff
Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Perhaps no topic in education policy is currently as contentious as the Common Core standards. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has called Common Core a “total disaster,” and repeal efforts have been initiated in many states (though the standards are still in place in at least 40 states, depending on how one counts).

Public opinion has also increasingly turned against the standards. For instance, in the annual Education Next poll, opposition to the standards rose from just 13% in 2014 to 35% in 2015. Other polls find much higher opposition, depending on question wording. It appears the public is about evenly split on the standards at the moment. 

Public opinion about the standards is important for many reasons. Perhaps the two most obvious reasons are: 1) public opinion drives political actions in state legislatures, such as repeal efforts and efforts to adopt new assessments outside the Common Core-aligned consortia, and 2) public opinion likely affects schools’ implementation, as politically active groups involve themselves in school board meetings, contact teachers directly to express their concerns, and “educate” parents with information or misinformation.

But what is driving public opinion about the standards? And in particular, what is driving opposition? Some colleagues and I recently published an analysis that uses public opinion data to test a series of hypotheses about just that. We looked at the role of demographics, individuals’ other policy positions, and voters’ personal knowledge in predicting opposition to the standards among California voters. We reached several interesting conclusions.

First, opposition to the standards does not appear to be driven by demographic characteristics. Once you control for voters’ views about other issues, differences among racial/ethnic groups and political parties in opposition to Common Core are small or zero. For instance, Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to support the standards, but once you control for approval of President Obama, the party difference all but vanishes. This suggests that voters’ views on the standards are driven more by the perception that Common Core originated from the Obama administration than by their views on the standards themselves. This is a similar trend to the finding that opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is much higher than opposition to universal healthcare.

Republicans, Democrats, and people of all racial  and ethnic backgrounds vary in their opposition for the standards, but in all cases their views appear largely to be driven by other factors. 

Second, views about Common Core are wrapped up with views about other policies. For instance, we find that people who believe that school funding is sufficient (a typically conservative position) and who support more local control of funding (also typically conservative, though passed in California by the Democratic governor) are more likely to oppose the standards. But we also find that people who are opposed to testing and who think there is too much testing (typically liberal positions) are more opposed to the standards. These findings suggest that merely addressing concerns about the standards may not get to the root cause of opposition, since opposition may be driven by these other, related but distinct issues.

Third and finally, we find that opposition is strongly related to perceived knowledge about the standards. In particular, people who claim to be more knowledgeable about the standards are more opposed to them. However, once you control for specific negative conceptions or misconceptions about the standards, these knowledge differences diminish. Specifically, we find that people who believe Common Core limits teachers’ creativity in the classroom are more likely to oppose it (this is a negative conception, though recent evidence suggests it is also likely untrue). We also find that people who believe states were not allowed to add content to the standards are more likely to oppose them (a misconception associated with concerns about the federal role in education).  These findings suggest specific areas that educators and policymakers might target if they want to inform parents about what the standards mean for their children.

In short, opposition to the standards is driven by many things—perceptions about the standards (some of which are true and some of which are not), beliefs about other policies, and views toward the President. Republicans, Democrats, and people of all racial/ethnic backgrounds vary in their opposition for the standards, but in all cases their views appear largely to be driven by these other factors.

Our work is an initial foray into understanding public opinion about Common Core and its drivers. We hope that the work can be useful to policymakers and educators thinking about how to implement the standards in this politically contentious climate. Addressing concerns about Common Core (whether based on accurate information or misconceptions), as well as other related issues (e.g., testing) may help improve the public’s attitudes toward Common Core. Furthermore, such efforts may well be necessary in non-Common Core states (e.g., Texas) where opposition to standards and testing has grown recently.

To read the research brief, click here.