Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Harnessing Public Opinion to Support the Common Core State Standards

Phi Delta Kappa International's picture

By William Bushaw, Executive Director, PDK International

Being a policy maker is a tough balancing act of both leading and listening. Get too far ahead of the public, and they won’t follow; listen too much and you may not make necessary progress. We see some of that tension in this year’s findings of the 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

Results of the poll come in a time of turmoil in the American education franchise. Recent major reform efforts, such as the Common Core State Standards and the new, more challenging student assessments that accompany the standards, face an uncertain future as the poll lays bare a significant rift between policy makers and American citizens and parents.

The Common Core State Standards are the result of an initiative launched in June 2009 as a bipartisan partnership between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It is a significant education initiative with the potential to dramatically change instruction in U.S. classrooms, but most Americans don’t know about it, and those who do don’t always understand or embrace it. How far can such an ambitious plan go when the American public is not on board to support and promote it? Our teachers and principals are the answer to addressing this challenge.

We know that almost 3 out of 4 Americans trust teachers and principals. And given that the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher shows that many teachers and principals support the Common Core, it is clear that these education professionals are best positioned to rally support for the initiative. It’s critical that policy makers seize this opportunity and ask teachers and principals to talk with their communities about the value of these new standards and associated assessments, highlighting how they will increase student learning.

But here’s the problem. Teachers and principals have reservations about the accountability proposals that coincide with the implementation of the new standards, including requirements to use student test scores when evaluating teachers and principals. Most agree that these rigorous standards must be paired with superior tests that assess student problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. However, as students and teachers adjust to the new standards and assessments, it is likely that test scores will initially decline, making it appear as though students are learning less in school. When test scores decline as anticipated, will teachers’ jobs be threatened?

To make matters worse, most Americans believe the significant increase in testing in the last decade has either hurt or made no difference in improving schools, and a majority of Americans don’t support using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. This convergence of public opinion about testing threatens to sharpen the pushback that policy makers will feel if they insist on staying the course and making high-stakes accountability decisions, including employment, based on the initial testing data when these new standards and assessments are implemented.

Americans overwhelmingly have trust and confidence in public school teachers and principals – one of our strongest poll indicators each year – and it’s time for our policy makers to leverage this public confidence. During implementation of the Common Core, policy makers would be wise to invest in systems that focus on improving teachers’ skills rather than focusing on accountability. Shifting course in this direction will deliver the necessary support to our public education professionals, which in turn could lead to greater support for the new standards and assessments by educators and the American public.  


Views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.