The Public Speaks on Curriculum Standards: “Meh”

Back-to-school season is also education survey time—Jason Bedrick and I examined the Education Next poll last week—and today we get the latest Phi Delta Kappa poll. For decades the PDK survey was done in conjunction with Gallup but is not this year. It also dropped questions specifically about such hot-button topics as vouchers and the Common Core. Maybe avoiding specific mention of the latter explains an interesting finding: the public’s response to curriculum standards is quite, well, blah.

The pollsters asked several questions about standards—especially an un-specified “new set of educational standards”—and inquired what parents thought of their effects.

First, when members of the public were asked if they thought the standards in their local public schools addressed “the things students need to succeed in their adult lives,” 27 percent answered that they addressed them “extremely” or “very” well, and 30 percent said “not so” or “not at all” well. 40 percent gave the middling “somewhat” answer. Ho-hum.

How about those “new” standards? 53 percent of parents thought the standards had changed what their oldest child was being taught, versus 33 percent saying “no change.” The direction of the change? 49 percent who perceived a change thought it had been for “the better,” 47 percent for “the worse” – essentially a tie.

Note that the data breakout I found did not differentiate between public and private school parents. In the poll’s executive summary, however, public school parents were isolated, and it appears that 45 percent thought the changes were for the better, 51 percent for the worse.

Where there may be some good news for standards fans is that 43 percent of parents who thought the new standards had changed what was being taught in their child’s school saw the changes increasing what their child was learning. Still, 31 percent thought the standards had decreased learning, and 25 percent perceived no change. So a plurality detected an increase, but a majority saw a decrease or no change. Similarly, 51 percent thought there was an increase in the degree of challenge for their kids, but 48 percent saw a decrease or no change. And remember, this was only among the 53 percent of parents who saw standards changing what their schools were teaching.

Have we been feuding over the Common Core, and standards generally, for no good reason? Do standards not really make a clear difference?

Surveys, of course, only tell us what respondents perceive, and we need more information than that to really know what effect standards have. But parents have an incentive to track their kids, and what these results seem consistent with is the conclusion that standards do not make much difference. Many Common Core opponents have long argued that, and I found it when examining the empirical evidence on national standards. But that is, in fact, a major reason that it was so troubling when Core advocates used federal power to coerce adoption of national standards; they sought to ramp up federal power without even having meaningful evidence that what they wanted would help.

At least for now, the public has spoken: there’s no consensus whether standards have helped or hurt. That should come as no surprise.