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Americans Like Their Schools Just Fine — But Not Yours

Rogelio V. Solis

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 figuresas 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.

/ LA Johnson/NPR
LA Johnson/NPR

"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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.