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The Battle Over Common Core, 140 Characters at a Time

The development of the Common Core State Standards had just started percolating in 2009, less than a year after the messaging service Twitter shot to nationwide popularity at an annual technology conference. The debate has been raging 140 characters at a time ever since.

The newly released #CommonCore Project from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education argues the common core is the first great national education policy debate of the social media age, and social networks using Twitter are changing the public discussion of education and giving voice to many groups and individuals outside traditional Washington policy circles.

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Yet at the same time, the study finds the social media is creating echo chambers in which the common core is mentioned to discuss practically everything except the standards themselves, and those on different sides of the debate often don't hear each other. 

"It's the unique intersection of social media social networks and politics that makes this so special," said Jonathan A. Supovitz, a CPRE co-director and a professor of education policy at the University of Pennsylvania who is one of the project's researchers. "Not many education policy issues are being debated this publicly and this fervently. The math wars of the 1990s were just little skirmishes compared to the common-core debate."

Co-authors Supovitz, Alan J. Daly, the education studies chair at the University of California, San Diego, and Miguel del Fresno, a lecturer at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, Spain, analyzed 189,658 tweets by nearly 60,000 users in a six-month period from Sept. 1, 2013 through March 4, 2014, that used "#commoncore," the most popular hashtag for such discussions (It is associated with significantly more discussions than similar tags #cc and #ccss.)  

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It's a time period, Supovitz told me, "coincident with a big decline in public support" for the common core.

The most active day of the study is a case in point: On Nov. 18, 2013, the Twitterverse exploded when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined to state schools chiefs that "white suburban moms" were leading the opposition to the Common Core State Standards. More than 3,000 tweets and retweets on the comments flashed nationwide in a single day under the "commoncore" hashtag alone, contributing to a firestorm of criticism that prompted the Secretary to formally apologize a few days later.

'A Proxy War'

Yet the researchers found much of the discussion around the "common core" hasn't really been about the standards themselves.

While commenters "relatively rarely" critiqued the standards for not being developmentally approriate and focused on academics to the exclusion of social and emotional learning, "one of our biggest takeaways is that 'common core' is really a proxy war for other, deeper-seated debates about the value and direction of education," Supovitz said.

Emotional, overtly political tweets outnumbered cooler tweets on the policy merits of the standards by nearly 3 to 1, with comments like "Stop trying to teach OUR children your urban, socialist values, #Obama," and "Anxiety attacks. Bursting into tears. Vomiting. Headaches. Self-mutilation. Results of #commoncore."

Overall, the researchers identified five common objections in which the common core opposition is conflated with opposition to:

  • The federal role in education;
  • Government and commercial access to children's personal data;
  • Standardized testing;
  • Business influence in public education; and
  • Focusing on student performance to the exclusion of underlying causes of low achievement, such as poverty and inequality.

'Influential Actors'

More than 60 percent of authors tweeted only once on the subject, but five users sent more than 1,000 messages during the study—the equivalent of tweeting more than four times a day, seven days a week, for six months. The researchers separately studied 682 individuals who were the most prolific commenters. (The group considered both most prolific and influential included two Education Week handles, @educationweek and Andrew Ujifusa, blogger for @StateEdWatch.)

With the exception of a few commenters who tweet across different groups, the researchers found the groups for and against the common core generally did not operate in the same networks of Twitter users. A significant portion of the total tweets came from those with no direct connection to education.

"I think that the common core is not unique, but it's atypical, in that [non-education] advocacy groups have used it to spark interest in their base issues," Supovitz said. "This could be a harbinger of the increasingly publicized policymaking in professional areas."

Chart: The #CommonCore Project mapped the ebb and flow of six months of Twitter chatter on the Common Core State Standards to critical events in the implementation of the standards. The project has an interactive version of the chart. Source: #CommonCore Project, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

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