The Power of Words and the Ongoing Fight Against Common Core

August 29, 2014


We have known for some time that Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have left voters, legislators, parents, and teachers frustrated and confused. Now we are learn that the Standards have caused a controversy amongst another group: pollsters. In a recent clash of surveys, the Gallup poll shows 60% of Americans oppose Common Core while an Education Next survey shows support for the standards in the 53% to 68% range.

Why the big difference? Not surprisingly, it is the questions themselves.

Here was the Gallup question that showed 60% opposition: “Do you favor or oppose having the teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach?” And here was Education Next’s question that showed 53% support: [Q31a]. “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?” No wonder the results were so different and so controversial. In juxtaposition, the angle each pollster took is obvious. But downright humorous is how Education Next achieved a 68% support mark: they also asked a question Q31b., which left out the words Common Core and replaced them with “standards for reading and math.”

So, it appears the best way to build up Common Core is to produce a poll showing the public supports it, but in order to do that, the poll must not mention Common Core. This is particularly surprising given the elevation of Common Core to brand status in the last year. Imagine a poll for say, Ford or Coke that failed to mention Ford or Coke. (Perhaps a better comparison to the Common Core brand is the Edsel or New Coke.) As the conflicting polls indicate, wording matters. This appears to be particularly true of Common Core, no matter what the context.

Just three months ago, when Common Core legislation was before the General Assembly, Charleston Senators Larry Grooms and Chip Campsen offered a short amendment to the Common Core bill (H.3893). That amendment, hereafter known as Grooms-Campsen, said that:
“For the purpose of developing new college and career readiness English/language arts and mathematics state content standards, a cyclical review must be performed…. The review must begin on or before January 1, 2015, and the new college and career readiness state content standards must be implemented for the 2015-2016 school year.” So what does Grooms-Campsen mean? That is the source of The Great “New” Conflict. It is a struggle over which of the two “new’s” in this paragraph is controlling.

Attorneys for the State Senate are dedicated to the first New. That would go something like this: any time new standards are developed by some group other than the State Board of Education (as were Common Core State Standards), a tweaking must take place periodically. It is time for that review in 2015, so let the tweaking of the current Common Core Standards begin around the first of the year.

Attorneys for State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais, who are dedicated to the second New, say Grooms-Campsen means something quite different: totally new state standards for Math and ELA must to be developed and that process must begin as soon as possible.

Hence the “New Conflict.”

The polling controversy and the New conflict are a perfect illustration for why Palmetto Policy Forum exists. When we first looked at the Standards issue nearly two years ago, we knew that the state was divided and misinformed. We also knew that South Carolina needed to get out of Common Core Standards and the federal testing that came with it. But this would need to be done without unneeded expense to taxpayers and a jarring effect on our children and teachers. That is why PPF rolled up our sleeves, recognized the teaching moment and looked for solutions. While some were simply pound the legislature, the Governor, the State Superintendent, we extended a hand and worked for a way out.

But the battle isn’t over.

There are those who would like to see warmed over CCSS as standards for 2015-2016, which is why we are committed to continuing to be actively involved in the revision process. In fact, Education Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais has appointed our own Palmetto Policy President Ellen Weaver to serve on an advisory panel for the new standards.

We are pleased South Carolinians will be developing the standards that will go into effect for the 2015-2016 school year. That was our goal all along, and the legislative win is a huge victory for federalism, local authority, and high standards. Our analysis framed the fight at the beginning, and our ongoing involvement will see us to the end of Common Core in South Carolina.

Dr. Oran P. Smith is Palmetto Policy Forum’s Senior Fellow.