where is the public on Common Core?

(Durham, NC) The Common Core standards are the most significant policy change in US education today, and they are increasingly controversial. Strong critics can be found on both the right and left. Meanwhile, the most influential proponents don’t exactly have fired-up grassroots supporters behind them. The main champions include several big foundations, Democratic and moderate Republican governors, and the Obama Administration’s Department of Education.

When read summaries of the Common Core, majorities of Americans and Californians do¬†support it. But of course, how it is summarized will be highly influential if people are not very well informed about its content and origins. If the Common Core is described with hostility, people may be easily persuaded to oppose it. And plenty of political actors have motivations to present it critically–scoring some valid points along the way.

My own feelings are largely favorable, because I like the content of the Common Core, although I would acknowledge that everything depends on the tests that are now being developed to assess it. But even those of us who basically support the Common Core should try to understand what the public is thinking about it so that we can address their concerns.

Public Agenda’s Jean Johnson offers several reasons for the lukewarm level of public support.

First, parents are not primarily worried about low standards or inadequate academic achievement. Public Agenda has frequently found that parents put behavioral and social problems at the top of their lists of concerns. The public’s premise is that kids need the same kinds of educational content that their parents had, but they behave worse. Children either need more surveillance and tougher sanctions or else more care and attention (or, possibly, both). Either way, raising the academic bar is not a relevant solution.

I am not sure the parents are right. One of the striking developments of the last 20 years has been a decline in rates of teen crime and drug use. Kids are behaving better but face increasingly steep global competition. That is the expert’s framework, and it is based on data. But, as Johnson notes, many parents think that school is already hard enough and that testing is too pervasive and consequential.

I have no interest in trying to sell anyone on the Common Core, but would want to present it in a way that gets a fair hearing. To that end, I would avoid talking about tougher standards. After all, how “tough” they are will depend on the tests, which are still being designed. Instead, I would emphasize that they are simpler than traditional standards, easier to read and understand (and thus more fair), and less political because they are not negotiated by state legislatures and education agencies. They also give more flexibility to schools and teachers to decide what to assign.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.