News: CJ Exclusives

Polling Fuels Debate on Education

Vouchers, testing, and standards the subjects of Gallup survey

Americans like their public schools. In fact, they would rather reform public school than abandon them for alternatives such as transfers or private schools, according to the 2003 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of American attitudes toward public schools.

Even when schools are identified as failing or “needing improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind law, parents express a strong desire to obtain extra services, such as tutoring, at their child’s school instead of elsewhere. If their child became eligible for a transfer, only about half of the parents say they have enough information to choose a nonfailing school.

Vouchers cleared the Constitutional barrier in 2002, but the PDK/Gallup polling appeared to find the public less enthusiastic about them this year than last. In 2002, public backing for vouchers reached 48 percent in the Gallup poll. This year, that figure was just 38 percent, much closer to the 34 percent approval rate in 2001.

Voucher advocates have long criticized the Gallup polling on vouchers for using flawed language to generate a politically predetermined result. Phi Delta Kappa’s “use of biased and misleading questions results in the conclusion that Americans do not embrace providing choices to families whose children are trapped in failing schools,” the Washington-based Center for Education Reform stated. “PDK is a society that in its modern history has become vehement in its defense of traditional public education, regardless of its record.”

Previous polling in North Carolina by the John Locke Foundation has found majority support for vouchers, with the percentage in favor having increased in recent years. Surveys show stronger support when respondents are told the amount of the voucher and that it would be targeted to students in low-performing schools.

Gallup’s poll of 1,011 adults focused on several issues that will be in the forefront as schools deal with the requirements of No Child Left Behind. At least 75 percent, however, say they know little or nothing about No Child Left Behind. Most, about 60 percent, favor decision-making at the local vs. state or federal level.

Those who answered questions on the PDK/Gallup poll expressed concern about the role of test results under No Child Left Behind. It didn’t seem to matter whether parents had children in the public schools, 66 percent indicated it was not fair to label a school “needs improvement” as the result of a single test.

The needs-improvement label will attach to North Carolina schools that miss “adequate yearly progress” goals for two years. Even though states establish their own AYP benchmarks, they can be hard to meet. Every subgroup in the school must succeed, or the entire school falls short. In 2002-03, 53 percent of N.C. schools missed AYP for at least one target or subgroup.

That result has the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, as well as teachers, bridling at the federal law. According to DPI, 284 schools, or 13.1 percent, missed their AYP by just one target. Across the state, 68 percent of North Carolina’s schools met 90 to 100 percent of targets.

The number of targets for each school varies with the number of student subgroups they serve. Two schools in the state had a single subgroup, 579 had 17 target groups, and one school had 35 targets to shoot for. A school must have at least 40 students in a given category before it becomes a target under AYP, but many students fall into multiple categories. Every category must reach the AYP benchmark, or the school fails for that year.

Poll participants didn’t approve of evaluating students based on math and English tests alone. Regardless of whether they had children in public schools, 71 to 77 percent thought the subjects tested were too narrow. At least 80 percent agreed that the English and math tests create a de-emphasis on other subjects in the curriculum.

As for teaching to the tests, respondents said that teachers have a strong incentive to gear instructional time toward anticipated test items. A total of 66 percent agreed that teachers will face these incentives, and nearly 60 percent think teaching to the tests “is a bad thing.”

Only one question in the poll asked parents explicitly about standards for special-education students. Under current practices, many special-education students take regular end-of-grade tests as well as National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. They may be given special accommodations, but the results are compiled along with results of other students. At least 66 percent of respondents said “no” to the item that asked whether the same standards should apply to special ed as to regular students.

Some of the more interesting results of the survey appear in attitudes toward funding, and parents’ ideas about what it will take to improve American schools.

When parents were asked to rank the most significant problems facing schools in 2003, funding placed first. At least one-fourth ranked funding above discipline, the next most urgent issue they identified. Most survey participants thought teacher salaries were too low, and at least 64 percent believed that schools in need of improvement should increase teacher salaries as way to attract high-quality teachers.

Respondents said that when it comes to the racial achievement gap, the most important factors are a combination of parent involvement, home life, student interest, and community involvement. Ninety-four to 97 percent said these were “very” or “somewhat” important in closing the gap.

Teacher quality was included among the significant problems facing schools, but respondents didn’t get a chance to rank it against family and community factors that could eliminate learning gaps. More than half of respondents said that the gap can be erased without more spending. While parents say systems need to pay a premium to bring good teachers to low-performing schools, they also indicate a belief that schools and spending are not the root cause of gaps in academic achievement.

Responses were about evenly split over voucher use. Half think they will make a positive difference in achievement, vs. no difference. Full-tuition vouchers would send as many families to public as to private religious schools of choice, and some to nonreligious schools. Half-tuition vouchers favor a choice of public school enrollment, according to the survey.

Dr. Karen Palasek is an assistant editor of Carolina Journal.