Social Media Plays Key Role in Education Policy Debate

The debate over school standards and Common Core is a heated one, and many take to Twitter to share their opinions. But Twitter's role goes further -- the social media platform is helping redefine how education policy is shaped, understood and implemented, according to a new study.

The study's authors tracked and analyzed approximately 190,000 tweets containing the hashtag #commoncore -- tweets that were written by about 53,000 distinct individuals during a six-month timespan, from September 2013 to February 2014. Twitter was the focus because it’s a medium that intersects social media and mass media.

The findings, reported in #commoncore: How Social Media is Changing the Politics of Education, provides “a glimpse into how social media is changing the politics of education,” according to Jonathan Supovitz of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who, along with Alan J. Daly of the University of California, San Diego; and Miguel del Fresno of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, Spain, authored the report.

“We see Common Core as a proxy war for broader cultural disagreements about the future direction of American education,” Supovitz said. “In the past year, arguments about the Common Core State Standards have spilled from education policy circles into the public discourse. By democratizing the flow of information and offering a rallying point for normally divergent groups, Twitter has played a key role in the crossover.”

The study and a comprehensive breakdown of the data can be found, where viewers can also see how users form informal networks on Twitter, and how those networks create and amplify narratives.

“The #commoncore project represents a new genre of research,” Supovitz said. “We tried to make our research more interactive and accessible to a wider audience in order to hopefully spark a meaningful conversation about the findings.”

The researchers uncovered several patterns, including:

  • The most common arguments against the standards were not based on the standards themselves, but broader political issues, such as a perceived federal role in education; a post-Snowden belief that the standards are a gateway for accessing data on children; concern over a perceived proliferation of testing that has become oppressive; and fear of business interests exploiting public education for private gain.

  • Supporters and opponents argue differently. Common Core supporters fill their tweets with policy points. Common Core opponents use political language that often groups the standards with a broader spectrum of positions they disagree with.

  • The Common Core is often explained in metaphors. Often, the metaphors don’t accurately describe what the writer intended. As these metaphors are repeated and retweeted, they can become the dominant narrative, not the original intended message about the standards. This is one way misinformation spreads.

“Overall what these data show is there is a new coalition coming together, which I’m calling the activist public, and they are competing to influence politics that influence policy,” Supovitz said. “This new coalition is definitely gaining the ears of policy makers. We know that money talks, but what this shows is that social media squawks.”

Supovitz added that this is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that is already morphing and changing over time.

The researchers are currently examining another dataset, from March 2014 to November 2014, coinciding with the run-up to last year’s gubernatorial and mid-term elections. Preliminary analysis of that data reveals:

  • The number of individuals using #commoncore continues to grow.

  • The networks uncovered during the initial project continue to evolve. Where there were three distinct factions in the original monitoring period, mergers of networks make it appear there are now two factions.

  • Organizational and institutional players in the space seem to be playing an increasingly large role in the debate.

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