People Don’t Like Current Education Policies, So Why Do Policy Leaders?

Jeff Bryant

The big annual poll on how Americans view public schools and education policy is out, and anyone eager to don the mantle of “education reform” might want to rethink their wardrobe.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss reports the news from her blog at The Washington Post, “The 47th annual PDK-Gallup poll, the longest continuously running survey of American attitudes toward public education … finds that a majority of Americans, as well as a majority of American public school parents, object to some of the key tenets of modern school reform.”

What was particularly jarring about the findings of this year’s PDK-Gallup poll is how much those results contrast to the pronouncements of current policy leaders from the Democratic Party and Republicans who are vying for their party’s presidential nomination.

Recent policy statements from the halls of Congress, the White House, and the campaign trail betray a staunch adherence to education policies that are completely not in favor, or are becoming less favorable, among the populace.

Look at what the survey tells us.

Test And Punish Falls From Favor

One of the “tenets” Strauss refers to is what’s become known as the “test and punish” approach to education reform.

This approach uses standardized tests to determine whether public schools and educators area being “accountable” with taxpayer money targeted to educating the nation’s students. Policy leaders view scores on these assessments as the most authentic measures of student achievement, school performance, and teacher quality. When test scores inch up, people at the top of the pay scale say this is proof that education reform is “working.” When students don’t “hit the mark” on these exams, there’s hell to pay down the line – usually, for rank and file teachers – not because there’s something wrong with the policies, but because those on the frontlines have failed at “implementation.”

As Strauss points out, of those who answered the PDK-Gallup survey “64 percent say there is too much emphasis on standardized testing” in public schools, and only 7 percent say there isn’t enough.

A deeper look into the polling data finds the distaste for testing is overwhelmingly true for blacks, whites and Hispanics, and among Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

Also, according to the PDK-Gallup poll, people aren’t so keen on using test results to evaluate teachers, as 55 percent of the public, and 63 percent of public school parents, oppose this idea. Here again, the survey responses align across the board, regardless of political party.

Common Core Takes A Dive; Are Charters Next?

Another tenet of modern school reform, Common Core Standards that have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia, has also fallen out of favor with most of the public.

Now that the standards are being rolled out, and people are finally seeing the consequences, a majority, 54 percent, now oppose the standards, with Republicans and independents mostly opposed and Democrats roughly spilt. This is a remarkable outcome given that two years ago, PDK-Gallup found that two-thirds of Americans had never heard of the standards. However, in this year’s polling, only 12 percent said they had either heard nothing about the Common Core or “didn’t know.” What do they say about familiarity?

Only one tenet of modern school reform remains: school choice. When asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and their parents to choose which public schools in the community the students attend regardless of where they live?” 64 percent of Americans and 67 percent of public school parents give a favorable response. Also, charter schools get about the same levels of support. However, the standing of school choice in the public’s eye may be more precarious than these results indicate.

First, allowing parents to use school vouchers to choose a private school to attend at public expense is favored by only 31 percent of Americans. Second, a glance back at last year’s PDK-Gallup survey finds that most do not understand what charter schools are. Currently, only about 6 percent of American public school students have opted to attend a charter, and there are vast sections of the country that have very few to none of these schools. So it’s not wild speculation to suggest that charter schools could easily be the next Common Core and become more unpopular as people become more informed about them.

What Policy Leaders Don’t Get

Despite clear signals coming from the public that current “test and punish” policies are off base, policy leaders in the nation’s capital continue to press for an extension of that approach.

As Education Week recently reported, in current deliberations focused on rewriting the federal No Child Left Behind act that has set the direction of federal education policy for 13 years, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. senators from the Democratic Party recently came down squarely on the side of the status quo in supporting an amendment “that would have required states to establish measurable state-designed goals for all students and separately for each subgroup of students, and to intervene if they didn’t meet those goals. It also would have required states to intervene in their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those that graduated less than 67 percent of their students.”

The amendment did not pass, “Fortunately,” according to education historian Diane Ravitch, who said, “It would have revived or worsened the punishments of NCLB.”

Republicans have taken their turns at reinforcing the “test and punish” approach to education policy too, most prominently at a recent summit for Republican presidential candidates hosted by American Federation for Children and The 74, a news venture recently launched by former CNN anchor-turned-education activist Campbell Brown.

According to Salon’s Elias Isquith, Ohio Governor John Kasich set the tone for the event by remarking, “If I were not president, but if I were King of America, I would abolish all teacher’s lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”

Other candidates eagerly matched the negative tone Kasich set, according to Isquith, voicing their disapprovals of teachers and their unions. For instance, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated a desire to “punch the teachers’ union in the face,” repeating a comment he had made previous to the event.

Bloggers at Education Week noticed the Republican candidates generally reinforced arguments for standards and accountability, although they differed in their support for Common Core and the role the federal government has in enforcing tests and standards.

Motoko Rich, reporting for The New York Times, reported, “The candidates performed a balancing act as they tried to embrace high standards for schoolchildren while shying away from the Common Core.” But none of the candidates was bold enough to suggest that the whole drive for standards, testing and accountability might be flawed.

“School choice,” continued to be a unifying theme among Republicans, with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush declaring his intention to “allow total voucherization,” according to CBS News.

Classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene summarized the Republicans’ education positions as “wanting to have it both ways.” Teachers deserve some praise, “Except for the many, many, many, many terrible ones.” Choice is good except for communities that don’t want to take that approach. “Red tape” is a burden, but schools need to be held more accountable. And standards are important as long as they are not Common Core.

What Do People Want Instead?

Results from the PDK-Gallup poll clearly rubbed those in the education policy establishment the wrong way, prompting some of them to point to a different survey published just prior. That poll, conducted by a conservative think tank, found “the public backs testing,” according to the think tanks’ news release, and “only 35 percent of the public expressing opposition” to Common Core standards.

Certainly, much of this discrepancy between the two surveys is the result in differences between the ways questions were worded. And no doubt, any evidence of how the general population feels about education policy should be interpreted with nuance.

But while the survey from conservatives takes the status quo of tests, standards, and accountability as more a less a given, the PDK-Gallup effort goes further to ask more open-ended questions about what people would prefer instead. And in the responses to these questions do we see even starker contrasts between the public’s views and what policy leaders and politicians are saying.

First, based on the survey results, Americans overwhelmingly like and support their local schools, with 51 percent giving schools in their own community a grade of either A or B and only 4 percent giving those schools a failing grade.

Although there is a great disparity in how Americans view their local schools than they do schools nationwide – with survey respondents grading the nation’s schools much more harshly – much of that difference can be attributed to current policy leaders and political candidates who openly bash public schools.

Also, when queried about alternatives to tests for measuring the effectiveness of public schools, “A strong majority (about eight in 10) of Americans believe how engaged students are with their classwork and their level of hope for the future are very important for. Fewer rated the percentage of graduates attending college and getting a job right after high school as very important. Testing came in last as a measure of effectiveness with just 14 percent.”

Further, when PDK-Gallup asked Americans what were the biggest problems facing their local schools, survey respondents overwhelmingly replied “lack of financial support.” Democrats and independents were about equally assured that money for schools was lacking, while Republicans were split between the need for funding versus the need for standards and “quality.”

So the schools American families participate in are generally doing their jobs, but we need better, more qualitative ways of assessing their work, and what schools mostly need is more funding and support. Why don’t we ever hear policy makers and political leaders talk about that?

The reason we don’t is that in our current political climate, the “test and punish” reform policy is the easier path to travel. Stern rhetoric and “tough-minded” policymaking are rewarded as being “very serious” approaches to governing. Taking a position to support a valued institution like public schools, to assess their outcomes in a richer, student-centered way, and to ensure adequate, equitable funding, would take something altogether different – something more like, you know, real leadership.

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