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Is Twitter affecting the national debate on the Common Core State Standards initiative? Three researchers working on a digital reporting project say “yes” — and they call this the first national policy conversation played out in social media.

The university researchers looked at hundreds of thousands of tweets at #commoncore over a six-month period and analyzed them not only for content but also by author. One key finding:  Twitter is “making the invisible visible,” giving people who usually have no voice in national discussions power to express their opinions and affect discourse. The researchers also noted that the debate over the Core isn’t only about the Core standards themselves, but, rather, about issues such as the federal involvement in local education issues, student privacy,  standardized testing, the role poverty plays in student achievement and how for-profit companies are affecting education.

The researchers undertaking the project are Jonathan Supovitz, professor of education policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education; Alan J. Daly, chair of the Department of Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego; and Miguel del Fresno, a communications professor at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Spain.

They analyzed some 190,000 Tweets from September 2013 to February 2014 at #common core from 52,994 Tweeters (and are now analyzing hundreds of thousands more Tweets). Most of the tweets were written in opposition to the Core or related reforms, though the researchers said they found  only two specific sets of complaints about the standards themselves:

Claims that the Standards are developmentally inappropriate because they were back-mapped from college- and career-ready outcomes to early childhood expectations;

and

Critiques that the Common Core focused solely on academic skills and expectations while ignoring equally important social and emotional development.

Noting that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” the researchers divided the tweeters into three “particular structural communities”: one that generally supported the Common Core, one made up of educators who opposed the Common Core, and the third comprising actors from outside of education who opposed the Common Core primarily due to their connecting it to larger social issues.” The most active participants using #commoncore on Twitter came from the third group. Supovitz wrote:

But another important lesson from our analysis of the Common Core debate on Twitter is that that social media-enabled social networks are an increasingly potent force for gaining the attention of policymakers both by communicating to them directly and by raising enough noise and attention through crowdsourcing grassroots energy to influence both media coverage and public opinion that gains their attention. The prime examples of the rapid ascent of grassroots organizations active in the #commoncore network which have no infrastructure and are entirely run by volunteers are the BadAss Teachers Association, which in two years has accumulated 39,000 followers in 50 states and is run by 245 volunteers; and Red Nation Rising, which accrued some 37,000 followers in its first six months and claims to have made nine billion social media impressions. These groups arose with no money and no organization other than a volunteer social media manager who tweets from her phone. Based upon the entire #commoncore social network and these vivid examples, I argue that social media- enabled social networks are shifting the dynamics of factional politics in American policymaking.

There are 158 elite “transmitters” of tweets, who gain ‘outdegree’ by the number of tweets they send using #commoncore. Here is a description from the report of whom some of them are. (I am removing color code references to an interactive graphic and map on the research webpage, which you can find here.)

The most dominant position type in the transmitter #commoncore network—61 people or almost 40% of the elite transmitters—are individuals who are not formally affiliated with education. These individuals tend to be in the anti-Common Core/outside education group, like @gerfingerpoken, @formerbondgirl, and @defendressofsan; others are in the anti-Common Core/inside education group, like @chelearle and @kiwigirl58.

The second-most prolific position of elite transmitters in the #commoncore network is the 32 actors who are affiliated with education institutions or groups. These actors, like @educationgadfly, @expectmoretn, @washingtonstand, tend to be from organizations in the pro-Common Core group , but exist across all three factions.

Following closely behind are 27 school- and district-level practitioners, who comprise 17% of the elite transmitters. These are mostly practicing teachers and school principals. About two-thirds of these actors are grouped in the anti-Common Core/inside education faction, while about a quarter of these education practitioners are supportive of the Common Core.

A fourth position type, comprised of 17 elite transmitters, is the education professional. These people, such as Randi Weingarten, Michael Petrilli, and Chris Minnich, are predominantly classified with the group that tends to support the Common Core. Some are also connected to the anti-Common Core/inside education group.

Finally, and notably, 13 people–representing 8% of the elite #commoncore transmitters—are journalists or members of the media. These include print, online, and radio media, and represent both non-partisan and partisan media entities.

Some of the “invisible” voices made visible in this debate on Twitter are:

*Anthony Cody (@AnthonyCody) a National Board Certified teacher who worked for 24 years in the Oakland Public Schools and who has over the last eight years become increasingly active in education policy debates, starting a Facebook site called “Teachers’ letters to Obama” and co-founding, with Diane Ravitch and others, the Network for Public Education, an education advocacy group. He was a regular blogger at Education Week and now runs the website called Living in Dialogue.

*Katie Lapham (@Lapham_Katie), a certified bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) elementary school teacher in New York City who writes a blog called “Critical Classrooms” and who co-created a website called “Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates.”

*Tim Farley (@TFarley1969), a middle school principal in New York State who has been an educator for 23 years and a school administrator for the past 17 years. Supovitz posed this question: Is Twitter an arena for democracy, an echo chamber, or an incubator for influence? And he answered it by saying there is evidence to support all three possibilities:

These explanations are also not mutually exclusive and it is plausible that all three of these phenomena are at play simultaneously. Twitter can be an arena for democracy, an echo chamber, and an incubator for influence all at the same time. And perhaps even more importantly, as we are starting to see the ways that the Common Core debate has trended over time, this new mixture of political activism on social media that spurs robust social network activity is changing the way that politics and policy interact.

You can see the whole project here.