New Poll Offers News Both Heartening and Glum for Education Reformers

By 08/20/2015

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The poll results that Education Next released Tuesday carry mildly glum news for just about every education reformer in the land, as public support has diminished at least a bit for most initiatives on their agendas: merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits, Common Core, and even ending teacher tenure. That dimming enthusiasm for change is apt to dominate coverage of the survey findings and the debates that follow.

Yet two other big-picture tendencies are also visible in these data, and it strikes me that they matter more over the long run than any one year’s blips around particular reform ideas.

First, when it comes to fundamental principles and practices regarding K–12 education, the American public is generally pretty sensible and steadfast. More on this below.

Second, when it comes to important basic facts regarding that very same K–12 education system, the American public is stunningly ignorant. This is especially true on the fiscal side. Poll respondents underestimated by half how much money is spent per pupil in their local schools. They’re off the mark regarding where the money comes from—estimating the federal portion to be far larger (and the state and local shares far smaller) than reality. They underestimate current (average) teacher pay by some $15,000. (Teachers participating in the survey were unsurprisingly closer to the truth on that question, although not on the others.) And people are all but clueless as to whether their district is or isn’t implementing the Common Core standards.

The public is also famously and enduringly off the mark regarding the academic performance of their local schools, still sipping the warm waters of Lake Wobegon and giving honors grades to “the public schools in your community,” even while conferring far lower marks on “the public schools in the nation as a whole.”

People’s sense of complacency about current school quality is, of course, a major source of their discomfort with radical changes in familiar school practices. (If it ain’t broke, etc.) Yet all the news about flat NAEP results and bleak PISA and TIMSS scores, to say nothing of the hand wringing over international competitiveness and waning social mobility, don’t seem to have penetrated very far into the public’s continued faith in their local schools. While they may not deserve As, Americans have long reasoned, they surely earn Bs or Cs; maybe they’re not great, but they’re not badly broken either.

About that large reality, I believe people are simply wrong. Yet they’re right about a good many other fundamentals. They support annual testing (even when federally required) and results-based accountability for schools. They’re mostly OK with multi-state standards for reading and math (although less so when the “Common Core” label is affixed.) They oppose “opting out” of tests. Overall, they remain bullish on charters, negative on teacher tenure, opposed to “agency fees” (whereby teachers are forced to pay the union to negotiate even if they decline to join the union themselves), and hostile to federal requirements that restrict schools’ ability to suspend disruptive students.

Another positive: People seem willing to alter their views when presented with relevant information. Otherwise-broad support for higher school spending, for example, narrows considerably when respondents are presented with accurate current spending levels.

This year’s survey also probed people’s views on curriculum, particularly focusing on what subjects should be “emphasized” in their local schools. The bottom line, as phrased by Education Next’s Paul Peterson, Martin West, and Michael Henderson, is that “everyone wants more emphasis on just about everything in school, except athletics, though the general public is especially eager for more emphasis on reading and math, while teachers see greater needs in history and the arts.”

That public hunger for reading and math brings me back to Common Core. Yes, those two words may constitute a tainted brand. Yet for all the yammering of politicians about federal meddling and overreach in the realm of academic standards, nearly as many Americans (41 percent) would have the federal government take the lead in “setting educational standards for what students should know” as would assign that role to the states (43 percent). It’s important to note that there’s far less support for Uncle Sam identifying failing schools or deciding what should be done with them. On this, the NCLB reauthorization lurching through Congress seems reasonably aligned with public opinion.

My own sense is that while Common Core—the brand—may continue to loom large in the GOP presidential primaries, it’s now more about politics and posturing than strong public feelings. Politicians aside, the Common Core debate has probably stabilized. Few states have actually bailed out. More of the public supports the standards than opposes them. Teachers are split, but probably more because of accountability anxieties than opposition to rigorous academic standards for kids.

The question going forward shouldn’t be, “What do you think of the standards?” It should be, “Has it all been worth it?” With new assessments finally in place almost everywhere (and the first results from them due in the very near future), we’re fast getting beyond the “Should we?” stage; soon, we’ll leave behind the painful early implementation of something ambitious and unfamiliar and transition fully into the real work of improving teaching and learning. “Early-adopter” states like Kentucky offer the hope that we’ll see progress in the years ahead. That progress might someday, just possibly, wean us off the Wobegon water, replacing it with the refreshing discovery that our local schools truly deserve an honors grade.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on Common Core Watch.

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