Poll: Americans favor Obama’s school reforms

Most Americans want to change No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and they favor several education reforms backed by the Obama administration, such as charter schools and teacher merit pay, a new survey finds.

Every year since 1969, Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International, a global association of education professionals, and Gallup have created a poll to examine how the country views its educational system. This year, because of the economic downturn, the election of President Obama, and Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the poll has blended its customary questions with questions surrounding current issues, such as the stimulus legislation and its impact on local schools.

“Like it or not, all of these events affect our everyday lives. And with these major changes come changes in public attitudes about a variety of issues–including education,” says the report, titled “Americans Speak Out: Are Educators and Policy Makers Listening?”

The topics for this year’s poll were created by a bipartisan group of education experts in February. More than 1,000 randomly sampled and diverse households were polled via telephone, with an oversample of parents with school-aged children. The poll was conducted between June 2 and June 24.

Grading schools, NCLB, and charter schools

In every PDK/Gallup poll conducted since its inception, the first question asked is to describe the “biggest problem facing public schools” in the community. With no prompts provided, respondents have cited funding as the biggest problem since 2000. This year, 32 percent of respondents said funding–the highest number ever recorded.

And while more than 50 percent of Americans gave the schools in their community either an A or a B when asked to grade their schools on an A to F scale, grades given to the nation’s schools as a whole were significantly lower, with fewer than 20 percent giving schools nationwide an A or B.

“This continues a long-standing difference, suggesting that Americans like the schools they know but are much less positive about public education in general,” says the report. “Public school reformers fear that the results show that Americans are overly satisfied with the schools in their community and, consequently, less open to reform efforts.”

“The reasons for this disconnect are simple,” says Gerald Bracey, a PDK columnist and author of Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. “Americans never hear anything positive about the nation’s schools and haven’t since the years just before Sputnik in 1957.”

Bracey says the news media, many education advocacy groups, and even President Obama offer negative views about the current state of American education, which influence public opinion. “On the other hand,” says Bracey, “parents use other sources and resources for information about their local schools: teachers, administrators, friends, neighbors, newsletters, PTAs, and their kids themselves; and they’re in a much better position to observe what’s actually happening in American schools.”

Byron Garrett, chief executive officer of the National PTA, believes the disconnect can be solved if the nation adopts Common Core Standards and parents and educators partner “to provide a low-cost, high-impact solution to improve student success.” That way, every school can be held to the same standard, he says.

According to the poll, common standards might be a good idea, because Americans support testing via a single national test, rather than letting each state use its own test–an opinion held by Republicans and Democrats alike.

By a two-to-one margin, Americans continue to support this one element (annual testing of students in grades three through eight) of NCLB; yet, even though those polled believe in testing, support for NCLB “continues to decline, as almost one out of two Americans view it unfavorably, and only one out of four has a favorable opinion,” states the report.

Also, only one out of four Americans believes NCLB has helped schools in his or her community.

“I think people believe in testing but not in NCLB, because people believe in the overall purpose of NCLB–to help schools through government intervention and accountability–but not how this purpose was carried out,” said William J. Bushaw, executive director of PDK, during a press call. “I think these negative views will have a severe impact on the reauthorization of NCLB next year.”

John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association (NEA), said during the call that he believes NCLB has a low acceptance rate because of “the NCLB funding that never happened.”

One type of school system that most Americans can agree liking is charter schools. During the last five years, American’s approval of charter schools has increased by 15 percent, says the poll, and almost two out of three Americans now say they favor the idea of charter schools.

However, this result should be examined closely, researchers say. Even though most Americans say they favor charter schools, many still don’t have a good idea of what characterizes a charter school.

For example, those polled were “evenly split on whether charter schools are, in fact, public schools (they are), or if they can teach religion (they can’t). The majority continue to believe that charter schools can charge tuition (they can’t), and almost three out of four Americans believe charter schools can select the students who attend (they can’t),” says the report.

“The misunderstanding starts with the characterization of charter schools as ‘free’ from state or federal regulations,” explains Margaret Trimer-Hartley, superintendent of the University Prep Science and Math District in Detroit. “The continuing confusion about charter schools stems largely from political divisions and years of hostile partisan rhetoric over what role the nontraditional schools should play in education reform.”

“I think even though many don’t exactly know what a charter is, they know it’s different and held to a different accountability,” said Bushaw during the press call. “It signals that Americans are ready for a change.”

Teacher pay and economic stimulus

Types of schools and NCLB aside, most Americans seem to value good teachers.

Nearly three out of four Americans (both Republicans and Democrats) favor merit pay for teachers. Student academic achievement, administrator evaluations, and advanced degrees are the three most favored criteria for awarding merit pay, according to respondents.

Also, three out of four Americans believe there should be national standards for the certification of public school teachers and that beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate should earn more than they are currently paid by their community.

Americans also favor increasing the number of scholarships to college students who agree to teach science, math, and other technical subjects.

Finally, Americans believe that keeping teachers who were slated to be laid off should be the No. 1 priority in spending the economic stimulus funds, followed by providing support to the lowest-performing schools.

“Historically, parents have been a barrier to teacher recruitment, discouraging their children from entering the profession. Today, 70 percent of parents say they would like their children to become teachers, versus 40 percent in 1980,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president and professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

He continues, “Taken together, these results set the stage for the federal Race to the Top program and governors with stimulus funding to create comprehensive programs at the state level, where leverage and potential impact are greatest, to incorporate scholarships to attract the best and brightest to careers in teaching in the areas of highest need, and to provide incentives to universities to improve the quality of their teachers education programs in those fields.”

Dropouts, early childhood education, and innovation

For the first time, PDK/Gallup included questions to gauge if Americans agree that not completing high school is a serious problem, and what might be done to reduce the number of dropouts.

According to the poll, nearly nine out of 10 Americans believe the dropout rate in the U.S. is either the most important or one of the most important problems facing high schools today.

When asked what contributes to the dropout rate, eight out of 10 Americans linked it to students failing too many classes or leaving school to take a job or be a parent.

Offering more interesting classes was the suggestion offered most often by Americans when asked what could help reduce the dropout rate.

Offering more interesting classes correlates to another key finding of the poll relating to innovation in schools: When asked if public schools are moving in the right or the wrong direction, Americans are evenly split in their response, “strongly suggesting that they would be open to more innovation in schools,” says the report.

Those polled said better teachers and more parental support are the two main issues that are key in moving schools in the right direction, but lack of money was listed as the No. 1 obstacle to prevent schools from moving in the right direction.

Another solution that could help curb future dropouts is early childhood/preschool education, according to the poll.

The report states that Americans strongly endorse making either half-day or full-day kindergarten compulsory for all children, and nearly six out of 10 Americans would be willing to pay more taxes to fund free preschool programs for those children whose parents are unable to pay for them.

“I believe four factors have contributed to the rising approval rating of early learning programs,” says Barbara Bowman, chief officer for the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Early Childhood Education. “Penetration into the popular press and news media of neurobiological research communicating the importance of early brain development; education research demonstrating long-term individual and social benefits when children attend model preschool programs; economic analysis showing huge potential social and educational savings if children attend preschool programs; and the increase in working women leading more families to seek affordable child care.”

“The poll results appear to be a permission slip for the president’s education agenda,” concluded Bushaw during the press conference. “It provides a ringing endorsement for many of the administration’s planned changes that will be taken up in Congress next year as lawmakers debate what to do with the No Child Left Behind Act.”


PDK/Gallup poll 2009

National Education Association

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Stimulating Achievement resource center. Learn how to make wise spending decisions and keep track of school needs as stimulus funds become available. Go to: Stimulating Achievement

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