Education Gallup Poll: Bountiful but 'Blurry-ful'

Recently, the Phi Delta Kappan and the pollsters at Gallup unveiled their 36th annual survey of public attitudes toward schooling. The people of the United State spend more than $500 billion a year on K-12 education-more than we spend on national defense. Annually, the September release of this education poll is treated as an event of some importance to the general public, to educators and to schools across the country. Your columnists, in a recent forum, entered into a dialogue on this very subject. The result of that dialogue is reported in this column.

M.A.B.: In general, the PDK/Gallup poll does a fair job of mirroring public attitudes toward education. However, in reading the study, I find that the survey responses are often blurry and even contradictory. This is disturbing. For example, at least two in three adults oppose the use of test scores in reading and math to judge school performance. Yet at the same time, almost as many people said schools place the right emphasis on tests or fail to emphasize testing enough. There seems to be an inconsistency there.

R.L.H.: That is a powerful observation. In fact, seventy-three percent of the public believes that it is NOT possible to judge a student's proficiency in English and math on the basis of a test and yet, 51 percent support a single high-stakes graduation test and a strong plurality, 40 percent, think there is just about the right emphasis on achievement tests, while 22 percent think there's not enough. That, right there, gives a blurry focus to the picture.

M.A.B.: I note too, twenty-four percent has a generally favorable view of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which took effect in 2002. Overall, however, 68% of the respondents said they knew nothing or very little about the 2.5 year-old law and 56% said they didn't know enough to form an opinion of it, in other words, they are clueless as to what the law contains. But then catch this, 51% believe the law will substantially improve education. How can this be?

R.L.H.: What you are asking is a very valid question: Just how can people who do not even know what the act contains, then believe that it will lead to achievement? The only explanation I can give is --when people believe when there is national, state and local focus given to the problem, then things somehow get better. And in some respects, they may be right. However, there may be something to the notion that the answer may realistically lie in the form in which the questions are posed. In other words, the desired response may be obtained if the questions are posed in a certain way.

M.A.B.: Indeed. For example, it is noted that private-school vouchers continue to lack majority support. But, the wording of the question can artificially provide skewed data. Asked if they favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense, 54% opposed the idea while 42% favored it. And yet at the same time, the research firm of Wirhlin Worldwide, a well-recognized research firm, conducted a study coinciding with the Phil Delta Kappa poll. That study found that 63% of the people supported vouchers when the question was asked about letting students and parents "choose any school, pubic or private, to attend using public funds.

R.L.H.: And then there is a head-scratcher observation; eighty-eight parents of the public thinks it is important to close the racial achievement gap, However, only 42 percent of the eighty -eight percent or about 36 percent of the total number polled support disaggregating the achievement data by race and other characteristics. But note the pubic want the schools to take the lead in closing the racial achievement gap. The poll find that 74 percent recognize that schools did not create the gap, 56 percent say it is the responsible of the schools to close it.

M.A.B.: But then, how does one measure if the gap is closing if the data is not disaggregated?

To note on the side, I have been thinking...Europeans want huge welfare states, low birth rate, productive economies and six week vacations per year and we as Americans want high test score, high standards, "but gosh" some may say, "isn't all this testing a bit much and almost disruptive?"

R.L.H.: It does seem, according to the overwhelming response, the public want consequences for failure for everybody except when it comes too close to home. 70 percent of the respondents with childlren in schools gave the school in which their child attends, an A or B rating and only 47 percent of respondents-- without children in school, --gave their school that kind of high grade. It almost begs the question, will the public decide that the potential that may result from HCLB interventions and services be worth the disruption of accountability?

BOTH: The public's attitudes toward the public schools shape the initiatives and strategies that can be brought to bear to improve the schools and the changing needs of our society. Primarily however, meeting the needs of each individual learner is really what is at steak. Therefore, the more reliable the data, the better off each learner will be. It does appear, that as Americans we have not yet fully digested what high standards, rigorous assessment, sorting data appropriately, serious accountability and choice among schools might mean. That is how we see it FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE.