Not a snapshot of public opinion but an album 

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The PDK/Gallup poll shows not only how Americans feel about their schools today but over the course of nearly 50 years. That is an important perspective. 

 

The question of what a student needs to learn and experience in school and how best to measure that learning is not the right question to ask at a dinner party. I know this from working in the education space for over two decades, and I say it with an equal measure of sarcasm and sincerity. While the American people agree on some very simple points about education, they tend to be all over the place and at times contradictory when it comes to the finer and more complicated details of public education. If you want to secure your friendships and your dinner party invitations, steer clear of such questions. You have been warned.  

A safer bet is to dig deep into the 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. This year’s poll reveals some of the opinions, frustrations, and anxieties of Americans and their views on education, especially pertaining to standardized testing, the Common Core, and a lack of financial support for local schools. This year’s poll includes a larger number of Americans and for the first time can reliably report opinion results of specific demographic groups — blacks, Hispanics, whites — valuable information when one considers the nation’s quickly changing demographics. Almost a half-century of polling data also allows the public to see some of the yearly results in the context of historical trend data. The questions related to testing especially benefit from this historical context.  

Opinions change 

For example, in 1970, 75% of American surveyed said they wanted students in their local schools to take national tests so their educational achievement could be compared with students in other communities. Sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement for national testing requirements right? Fast forward 45 years, and we now have a majority of Americans and public school parents saying there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in their public schools. When given a set of options and asked to rank which is the best way to measure the effectiveness of public schools, testing came in dead last with just 14% of parents rating test scores as important. Despite this lack of confidence in testing, Americans are split on whether parents should have the right to excuse their child from taking a standardized test, and a majority of public school parents surveyed said they would not excuse their own child from such an exam.   

The lack of public support for testing is almost assuredly associated with a conflation of issues. 

The lack of public support for testing is almost assuredly associated with a conflation of issues. The legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its rigorous testing requirements and dreaded Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) indicator, probably did more to turn off the public to testing than anything. For years, teachers and education leaders complained about how testing had become a tyranny, sucking away resources, narrowing the curriculum, and demoralizing an entire generation of educators. The fight to finally reauthorize NCLB has been long and hard, and the battlefield is littered with draft bills and federal waivers to free states (and districts) from NCLB’s most unpopular requirements. The final stages of the reauthorization process are being played out now, and finding a compromise over federal testing requirements is once again a linchpin issue.   

The Obama administration’s zeal for using standardized test scores as the basis for new teacher evaluation requirements in the Race to the Top grants and the NCLB waiver applications did not help improve things. These policies stoked the ire of a powerful and loud contingent of education leaders and gave way to the grassroots opt-out movement. Add to that the optics of powerful testing companies collecting student test data in an era where parents are increasingly concerned about student privacy. All of these factors have contributed to the public’s unease with testing.  

Student engagement 

The poll also reveals a lack of confidence in what test results can and cannot tell us about teachers and schools. Americans and public school parents are not comfortable using standardized test scores to evaluate the performance of teachers or schools. Americans also rank student engagement at school and whether students feel hopeful about their future as far better factors for evaluating schools than test scores. Education leaders and researchers who have questioned the validity
of using standardized test scores as the main measure of student or teacher success will be heartened to see those results.  

The additional demographic analysis that this year’s poll provides for readers reveals another interesting dimension to the national debate on testing.  Black Americans are more likely than whites (28% vs. 11%) to say that student scores on standardized tests are very important.  Black and Hispanics are also somewhat more likely to say that results of standardized tests are very important to improve schools and compare school quality.   

At times, this racial divide has been used as a lightning rod in the debate over what constitutes the right amount of testing for students. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got himself into a fix last year when he said he found it “fascinating” that some white suburban moms were pushing back against more rigorous standards and tests because “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, their school aren’t quite as good as they thought they were. And that’s pretty scary.”  

Demographic differences 

One can only assume the implication in that comment was that white suburban moms have had it good for so long that they have lost the ability to cope with a realistic assessment of their children’s abilities. Was Secretary Duncan saying that other kinds of moms are more accustomed to low-performing schools and therefore welcome any comparison of test scores if it will reveal low performance and spur improvement? No matter what was behind the secretary’s comment, this year’s poll does support his suggestion that there is a difference in attitude among racial groups when it comes to standardized tests.  

This year’s poll again asked questions related to the public’s views on the Common Core State Standards. Not surprisingly, the poll reports a majority of public school parents oppose having teachers in their local schools use the Common Core to guide instruction. Opposition to the Core is now so prevalent in the media that it seems old hat. What is more interesting is that the poll also reports that Americans and public school parents name academic standards as one of the biggest problems facing the public schools in their community. When you consider the ultracompetitive nature of a more global and more knowledge-based economy, this is fairly stunning. The big question, of course, is whether the antipathy toward the Common Core has tainted the larger conversation about using higher education standards to safeguard the nation as the world becomes more competitive and more focused on knowledge-based skills. The poll seems to indicate that is indeed the case.  

An album, not a snapshot 

Finally, the poll shows that despite the fact that Americans seem to love their local schools (once again, Americans gave the highest marks to the schools closest to them and worried for everyone else), they remain concerned about a lack of financial support for local schools. For the 10th consecutive year, Americans (black, white, and Hispanic) identified this issue as the biggest problem facing their local schools.  

The real value of the PDK/Gallup poll comes from looking at each response and then thinking about the connective tissue between and among them. The poll’s 47-year history adds yet another layer of rich context. Uniquely, the poll provides not a snapshot of public opinion, but rather an album of the emotions and opinions that help define our nation’s evolving views on public education.   

 

Citation: Ferguson, M. (2015). Washington view: Not a snapshot of public opinion but an album. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (1), 42-43. 

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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