Understanding the Common Core Debate Using Twitter Data
The Common Core State Standards are a topic of heated debate, but what is the debate really about — politics, ideology, or education? What is important to parents, students, teachers, administrators, reformers, politicians? Which groups are speaking up?
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are academic standards for English Language Arts (ELA), literature, and mathematics. In 2009 the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers coordinated a state-led effort to write the standards. Three big issues drove the NGA, according to to action:
- very different measures of learning between states was leading to confusion,
- the decline of American students’ achievement on international standardized tests, and
- the increased economic perils for low-skilled workers — i.e. 2008–2009 financial crash.
Funded by states, the Gates Foundation, and Pearson Education (among others), the standards are promoted as a clear, evidence-based set of standards with input from teachers, administrators and other experts. The standards have been adopted by 43 states with fiscal help from the President Obama’s ‘Race to Top’ grant program which rewarded states for writing education innovations into policy.
Sounds great, right?
Not exactly. The seemingly inclusive and productive process was closed to many people with political weight who opposed the standards. A very angry response erupted and is growing as new, computer-based adaptive standardized tests are rolled out and changes cascade down to the day-to-day lives of teachers, students and parents.
I am fascinated by the debate because it is happening at a national scale, includes opinions about standardized testing, and involves not only politicians, administrators, and teachers, but also parents and students. What changes brought forth by the CCSS are people discussing? What are the political ramifications of this debate? Who are the people that are talking about this and what are they saying?
To answer these questions, I took to Twitter. I chose Twitter because it was a straightforward way for me to get at public opinion without running my own poll. Starting on November 4th around 10 a.m., I asked Twitter to give me all tweets that contained the words “common core,” “commoncore,” or “ccss.” I was running the query script on my laptop so there are a few days and hours that I missed, but I managed to capture 41,000+ tweets from 21,000+ users over the course of the month.
The bar chart below shows the top hashtags, excluding #CommonCore and #CCSS since those were the search terms. It would be easy to say that the conversation on Twitter is primarily about #StopCommonCore, but the network analyses below tell a more nuanced story.
I believe the spike in the count of #TCOT (top conservatives on twitter) on and after election was primarily gloating about Republican gains in Congress and maybe some #StopCommonCore wins in a few local elections. I’m still investigating the curious spike in #StopCommonCore on November 18–20 — any thoughts are welcome!
Who is talking about Common Core and how are they talking about it?
The image above is graph of the users in my data set connected to the words they used to talk about the CCSS (edges not shown). The colors were assigned by a community detection algorithm that looks at the connections between the users and words. By looking into the words and users within each community (color) and their proximity to other communities, we can learn a lot about nature of the debate about the Common Core.
Immediately we can see that there are a lot of smaller communities around the edges of the network that are somewhat isolated in their views (measured here by the words they are using). Users using words Islam, Obama, and Common Core in the same breath (Racists), Enraged (Conservative) Grandmothers worried about Common Core and Communism, Liberal Haters, and Bill Nye’s social media machine are all on the outskirts of the very large center. Of these smaller communities, very few are for the CCSS.
There are three groups talking about politics: Legislative Repeal efforts in Ohio, Bobby Jindal’s Lawsuit against the federal Dept. of Ed, and reactions to State Elections Results. This mirrors the fragmented legislative and political assault on the Common Core. State superintendents and legislators opposing their governors, who as part of the NGA created the standards.
The Republican party is certainly split on the issue. I named theWWJeb BushDo group on the left side of the graph in bright blue to ask the question “What Will Jeb Bush Do?”. Another presidential candidate-ish, Bobby Jindal changed tack on the CCSS, now opposing, and has clearly separated himself, showing up in his own group in our graph. Will Jeb Bush continue to support the standards, how will his decision affect the national Republican platform?
Not too much was said about testing outside of the ‘Enraged Grandmother’ group. There was much talk about the success or failure of the CCSS based on scores on the new aligned tests, but the tweets sampled for this analysis didn’t show tests to be a central issue. Presumably this is because it is has been a significant amount of time after scores were announced, September in most states, and a significant amount of time before tests are administered in the Spring.
The big green area in the middle of the network graph is populated by users who are using similar words to debate the CCSS and is dominated by the word ‘math’. It is the largest, most expansive, and most central community in the network. It closes follows that this community contains both opponents and proponents of the CCSS and the most unique community on this graph.
The language used by opponents in this region referred to the difficulties with the cascade of real world changes brought on by CCSS math standards —significant curriculum changes, parents confused by methods, how parents can speak up/vote against changes. The proponents’ language was about related issues — resources for teachers to meet standards and addressing implementation problem areas (often mixed negative and positive language).
Math is clearly an area of challenges for the Common Core from both a perception and an implementation standpoint. The developers of the Common Core were heavily influenced by a 2002 paper by William Schmidt and Richard Houang, professors at Michigan State University called A Coherent Curriculum. The report calls US math curriculum “a mile wide and an inch deep” based on findings from TIMSS, a study comparing US students to international peers. The CCSS aims to improve students depth of math understanding by “continually returning to organizing principles such as place value and the laws of arithmetic to structure those ideas.” Based on the prominence of the ‘math’ community, it seems Schmidt and Houang have affected a signficant changes in math standards.
Politicians, textbook publishers, teachers, students and families are all connected to this shift in the way we teach math. The breadth and importance of which begs many follow up questions: Is there enough of a focus from state, district and school officials on giving teachers the professional development and learning materials they need? Are parents being informed of changes, how are they being informed? Is there enough oversight given the business interests and educational ramifications around Common Core aligned textbooks?
Grouping Users Based on Social Connections
The graph above represents the social connections, defined by follows, between the users from my CCSS data set. Connected by follows means there is an arrow pointing from user A to user B if user A follows user B on Twitter. The size of the user’s node and name is based on the number of people following them. The color of the user node represents the community.
I wanted to understand which users in my data set are influential and what differences in communities might emerge compared to the word-to-user graph above. There are three major communities:
- the red community: politically liberal, education focused users, not necessarily for the CCSS, i.e. Diane Ravitch (see below);
- the blue community: #TCOT, #PJNET using patriotic, Obama-bashing conservatives, mostly against the CCSS;
- the green community: conservative, political action minded, mostly against.
The dramatic separation between the left-leaning education-focused group in red and the closely related green and blue super-group of conservatives is striking. The communities are much more cleanly defined than in the previous user-word network because users choose to follow people with a similar perspective. As a result they don’t see what very different people have to say about the topics they’re interested in.
Here is a quick run-through of notable users on the graph!
Education Group (Red Left)
Notables just Left of Center
Two years ago, Bobby Jindal was pushing a state law to adapt national curriculum standards to local schools; today, not…t.co
Right — Mix of Green and Blue, with one a notable Red!
@POsroff —Pro-life, values-driven educator who is actually part of the red, education-focused community, but appears just to the left of the big conservative groups
@MichelleMalkin — conservative blogger
@stephenkruiser — comedian, performed for the troops
@LessGovMoreFun — heavy #PJNET user.
All the Way to the Right…
I wonder what type of role, if any, people and organizations similar to the users in the center —@politico, @POsroff, and the NPR handles — can play to facilitate the conversations necessary to successfully improve educational standards for all students. If both of these groups individually reach consensus on the CCSS, the end result will be another controversial debate with one or the other group feeling left out.
Given the numerous moving parts, communication and collaboration will be key to implementation. What are the ramifications for the lack of social ties between liberal and conservative teachers discussing CCSS implementation? Or liberal and conservative ed reformers against the Common Core?
I believe this analysis provides some insight into areas of focus for anyone thinking about or working on the Common Core. That said, its exploratory and I’m primarily excited about what comes next. What are some other questions we can of social media or government datasets? I’d love to hear from anyone interested in exploring this further.