Public Opinion, Research, and ESEA
Earlier this week, Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup released their “47th Annual PDK/Gallup poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”. The results of this poll are particularly timely given that Congress will pick up talks about ESEA reauthorization when they return to Washington, DC after Labor Day. Far too often when it comes to education policy, there has been a disconnect between what the research, parents, teachers, and policy makers say are the most important indicators of school quality and politically charged “sure-fire” ways to improve our nation’s public schools. Recent history is rife with too many instances where politics resulted in policy that is out of step with research and practice and, in some cases, also public opinion. For example, the focus on standardized tests as a sole indicator of school quality and student achievement, the use of value-added methods in teacher evaluation, and increasing physical security measures became widespread education policy with little to no evidence that these were effective ways to improve our schools. Results of the PDK poll further highlights this disconnect, particularly between what the American public values in public schools compared to what the media and policy makers highlight.
You can read the full report here, but here are some of the big takeaways that are relevant to the current ESEA conversation and some of NASP’s policy priorities.
When it comes to standardized tests, the majority of Americans:
- think we place too much value on standardized tests overall,
- although many do think they are important in order to have data to compare schools and districts;
- do not believe that standardized test scores should be used in teacher evaluations;
- consider scores on these tests to be the least important factor in school improvement; and
- think that these tests give the least accurate picture of school performance.
When asked what they do consider to be the most important indicators of school effectiveness, Americans indicated that student engagement, students feelings hopeful about their future, and graduation rates rank highly. Further, if given the option to choose the public school their child would attend, the three most important factors would be teacher quality, curriculum, and the ability to maintain student discipline. Lastly, the majority of Americans believe that the biggest problem facing our public schools today is lack of financial support.
Public opinion does not always align with what the research tells us is good practice and policy, but in this case, it does. Research shows that improving student engagement, student behavior, and school climate all contribute to reduced discipline problems, teachers’ enhanced ability to teach, higher graduation rates, and greater overall school and student success. We also know that these efforts must be implemented consistently each year, and that they require sustained financial and human resources to make sure they are done right. In terms of the latter, and perhaps most frustrating, this poll and numerous other data sources show that Americans want to see more investment in public education in order to provide those sustained improvements. Yet across the country we see education budgets being slashed at the local, state, and federal levels.
Surveys like the PDK/Gallup poll don’t necessarily shape policy, but they can contribute an important ingredient to the combination of factors that ultimately result in policy reform: the public’s—rather, the voters’—views. When public opinion aligns with research and best practice and a growing awareness among a meaningful segment of policy makers, the opportunity for real, positive reform expands tremendously. This is the circumstance we face now with ESEA, and it is more important than ever that school psychologists make our voices heard. Congress has never been closer to reauthorizing ESEA (formerly known as No Child Left Behind), and we have a very unique and critical opportunity to leverage public and voter opinion, research, and education policy that will improve school and student success. There are a number of provisions in the Senate bill that reflect what parents want, what the overall public wants, what NASP wants, and most importantly, what the research supports, but your elected officials need to hear from you. Please take a few minutes and urge your Congressmen to fight for these policies as Congress continues to consider the reauthorization of ESEA. You can send a letter, call their offices, or better yet, do both. The more they hear from us, the harder it is to ignore us!