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Poll: Widespread misperceptions about the Common Core standards

Teacher Carrie Young, back center, helps students prepare for the the Common Core State Standards test at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. (Ty Wright/AP)

Many Americans are confused about the Common Core State Standards, according to a new poll that finds widespread misperceptions that the academic standards — which cover only math and reading — extend to topics such as sex education, evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.

A 55 percent majority said the Common Core covers at least two subjects that it does not, according to the survey that Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted and funded. Misperceptions were widespread, including among both supporters and opponents of the program and peaking among those who say they are paying the most attention to the standards.

The Common Core is a set of guidelines that describe what children should learn and be able to do in math and reading from kindergarten through 12th grade. It began as a bipartisan, state-led effort and does not contain classroom curricula: States and school districts decide how to teach the skills and knowledge that the Common Core describes.

The poll findings show that advocates for the Common Core face a major public relations challenge as they seek to bolster support for the national academic standards, which have been adopted in more than 40 states but have become a target for some conservatives and many parents across the country.

“People are receiving bad information,” said Blair Mann, a spokeswoman for the Collaborative for Student Success, a pro-Common Core group that is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the new standards. “There are a million different Web sites that you can go to that have the ‘truth’ about the Common Core that are just perpetuating these myths.”

Mann blamed politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), both of whom have presidential aspirations, for spreading misinformation for political gain.

Paul's political action committee sent a fundraising e-mail last month criticizing the standards as "anti-American propaganda, revisionist history that ignores the faith of our Founders." Jindal also suggested in a recent speech about Common Core that the standards address U.S. history lessons.

“What happens when American history is not the American history that you and I learned about, but rather it becomes a history of grievances, of victimhood?” Jindal said.

Asked to explain, Shannon Bates Dirmann, a spokeswoman for Jindal said: “Governor Jindal wasn’t talking about current curriculum, but what type of curriculum to expect if the federal government continues to control what our children learn from Washington. President Obama and bureaucrats in D.C. have proven over the last several years that they do not believe in American exceptionalism, and if they continue to garner control over K-12 education that view could be passed to our children.”

Paul has said he is a proponent of state and local control when it comes to educational standards.

“Common Core is a prime example of federal overreach into academic standards which have been traditionally set by the states and localities,” said Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul. “As educators, parents and other experts are finding out, the standards of Common Core are just the tip of the iceberg in a much larger federal education agenda. It would be dishonest to say that the Common Core State Standards do not inform curricula, textbooks and assessments. A distorted and problematic view of American history is evident in Common Core aligned textbooks and the readings it recommends and omits.”

The issue could play a role in the upcoming 2016 presidential primaries, separating candidates like Jindal, Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who recently changed from supporting Common Core to saying he has “grave concerns” about it — from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime advocate for the standards who has maintained his support for them.

Previous polls have found mixed support , with wide-ranging results depending on question wording. In this poll, which described it simply as the "new Common Core Standards initiative," 17 percent approved while 40 percent disapproved.

A significant portion of respondents — 42 percent — offered no opinion. The wide uncertainty is unsurprising for an issue that large swaths of the public, not having children in school, has ignored. Just more than half of respondents said they’ve heard “just a little” or “nothing at all.”

But misperceptions were more common among those who said they were paying more attention. Sixty percent of those who said they have heard “a lot” about Common Core incorrectly said that the standards cover at least two of the four subjects that it does not cover. Among those who report having heard nothing about the program, only 45 percent said Common Core includes at least two such programs.

Forty-four percent of all respondents incorrectly said that the standards address sex education, and about the same share said that the standards include teachings on evolution, global warming and the American Revolution.

Fewer than one in five respondents correctly said that those subjects were not included in Common Core.

The poll found similar levels of confusion about Common Core’s content among Democrats and Republicans, supporters and opponents of the program and among people of different education levels.

No matter their level of misperceptions, more people disapprove of Common Core than approve. And even among those who have the most misperceptions, disapproval is not especially steep.

For instance, among poll respondents who incorrectly thought the standards include all four subjects tested in the poll, 36 percent disapproved of the standards, compared to 24 percent who approved.

But the impact of Common Core confusion on the program’s popularity differed across political groups. Republicans who incorrectly believed Common Core covers teaching on evolution, sex education and global warming were more apt to disapprove of the program. But among Democrats and independents, support did not grow or fall with greater levels of knowledge.

The Fairleigh Dickinson Public Mind poll was conducted Dec. 8-15 by live interviewers among a random national sample of 964 adults reached on conventional and cellular phones. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points, and is higher for results among subgroups.