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Tug-of-war

Tug-of-war

LA Johnson/NPR

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Two new polls this week attempt to quantify the public's feelings for the Common Core State Standards. The K-12 benchmarks in English and math were little known this time last year. But they've since become the subject of a high-profile political fight. Now a majority of the public opposes them.

Or do they?

Poll No. 1, out today, puts support for the Core at just 33 percent. But Poll No. 2, released yesterday, puts it at 53 percent. That's a big difference.

Which one is wrong? Or can they both, somehow, be right?

PDK/Gallup

Poll No. 1 is a joint effort between Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, or PDK. They've been doing this annual education poll for 46 years.

In last year's poll, the Common Core barely registered: the new kid in class that nobody knew. That's changed, says Bill Bushaw, the CEO of PDK. "Last year, two-thirds hadn't even heard the words together. Now 80 percent indicate that they know about the Core."

And that new kid has an image problem. The PDK/Gallup poll found that 60 percent of respondents oppose the Core.

But why?

Roughly half of respondents said they learned about the Core from TV, newspapers and radio. And critics — like commentator Glenn Beck — have used all three to wage a public campaign against the Core standards.

Poll No. 1 found that misconceptions are, well, common among opponents. A majority said they believe the standards were initiated by the federal government. They worry that the Core will result in a national curriculum and national tests. And their biggest fear, says Bushaw, is that the standards "would limit what teachers could teach locally."

Education Next

Poll No. 2 comes from Education Next, a journal sponsored by Harvard's Kennedy School, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. While this poll found many of the same misconceptions about the Core, it differs from the PDK/Gallup poll in a big way. That difference stems from the way this poll asked the central question, about whether people support or oppose the Core.

PDK/Gallup asked it this way:

"Do you favor or oppose having the teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach?"

The result: 60 percent of respondents said they oppose, which isn't all that surprising since the question hits on what we know, from the poll, is opponents' greatest fear: that the Core will somehow limit teachers.

Here's how Education Next phrased that question:

"As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use the Common Core, which are standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of the Common Core standards in your state?"

See the differences? It's longer, for sure, with more context. "States have been deciding whether or not to use the Common Core" sends a subtle but clear message: no federal takeover here.

Also, take a second look at this line:

"In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance."

That idea — accountability — polls really well with Americans.

So ... was there a difference in responses to this Education Next question and its analogue in the PDK/Gallup poll? You bet. In the latter, support for the Core was 33 percent. In the former, with that language about state control and accountability, support hit 53 percent.

The team at EdNext also put the same "do you support" question to a different group of people, but without using the words "Common Core."

Support jumped: from 53 percent to 68 percent. It's clear: Drop those two toxic words, "Common Core," gain 15 points.

This negative association with the name is a relatively new phenomenon, says Paul Peterson, a professor at Harvard and the editor-in-chief of Education Next. He says his team posed the same two questions in the same poll two years ago, and the words "Common Core" made little difference. A strong majority then approved of common standards, with or without the name.

Given these two polls and the considerable differences in that central Common Core question, it's natural to ask: Is one of these questions the right question?

The first thing you learn is that there is no right way to ask a question.

Paul Peterson, editor-in-chief, Education Next

"I've studied survey research since I was in graduate school some 40 years ago," Peterson says, "and the first thing you learn is that there is no right way to ask a question."

But can both polls be right? Can a majority of Americans oppose and support the Common Core?

In a word: yes.

Because, when it comes to polling, a word can make all the difference.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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