by William J. Bushaw in The School Administrator: The Journal of the American Association of School Administrators - February 2007
“We were amazed, as we are every year, at the public’s ability to separate myth from reality and arrive at accurate assessments of their public schools.”
“This year six of 10 Americans say NCLB is either hurting or making no difference in their community’s schools. That this reality is being ignored makes it likely that NCLB, for all its bright promise, will lead to limited gains and may actually do harm to our schools.”
Congressional Republicans last summer proposed spending $100 million in federal funds on vouchers that could be used by low-income students in “failing” schools to attend private and parochial schools. “When schools don’t work, parents must have other opportunities,” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced at a press conference to show her support.
But whether the premise that “schools don’t work” has widespread merit — and many would argue otherwise — those supposed “other opportunities” don’t seem to rank very high on the public’s wish list.
This is just the latest example of our nation’s policymakers embracing an education policy that is not backed by the public and is unsupported by research, including studies directed by the same education commissioner and the U.S. Department of Education.
We at PDK International also were busy in July, poring over the data from the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. We were amazed, as we are every year, at the public’s ability to separate myth from reality and arrive at accurate assessments of their public schools.
When asked how to improve public education in America, seven of 10 Americans said “reform the existing public school system” rather than “find an alternative system.” Spellings’ public offering of other opportunities doesn’t command much interest. Five of 10 Americans graded their community schools with an A or a B, and these high marks rise even higher the closer respondents are to the schools. It seems the public and particularly public school parents aren’t ready to buy the notion that schools don’t work.
Further, over last three years, the PDK/Gallup poll documents that the American public increasingly opposes the use of vouchers for children to attend private schools. We find ourselves wondering why the public understands this while our leaders in
Added to this disconnection between policymakers and the public is the unfolding tragedy of the No Child Left Behind Act. Praiseworthy goals are encased in an implementation plan so ill-conceived that the public overwhelmingly rejects every strategy used.
Even more damning, this year six of 10 Americans say NCLB is either hurting or making no difference in their community’s schools. That this reality is being ignored makes it likely that NCLB, for all its bright promise, will lead to limited gains and may actually do harm to our schools.
Just days before the voucher press conference, the U.S. Department of Education released a study it had commissioned that concluded students in public schools generally outperform their counterparts in private schools. The study, conducted by the Educational Testing Service, affirmed the findings of an earlier report highlighted in the May 2005 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan titled “A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background in Mathematics Achievement” by Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski.
The department not only delayed the release of its study, but it distributed the study late on a Friday afternoon, along with the added caveat that the study was of “only modest utility.” In other words, the study did not support vouchers.
WHAT TO DO?
I wish the policymakers in Washington would acknowledge that the American public likes its community schools and that the key to helping our nation’s schools get even better is to develop policies that build on this existing base of public support.
For example, eight of 10 Americans believe that preschool programs for children from low-income households would help them perform better in school as teenagers. Two of three Americans go even further by indicating their willingness to pay more taxes to fund preschool programs for at-risk children. So rather than offer policies like vouchers that feature “other opportunities” but are not supported by the public or by research, why can’t we spend $100 million to fund high-quality preschool programs that the public supports, that research has proven effective and that address the core issue behind NCLB, the achievement gap?
There clearly is a failure in
The support local schools enjoy provides a sound base from which to begin that effort. But our political leaders ignore the public’s desires, inflict punitive strategies on the public schools and promote alternatives that lack public support. While this approach persists, the worthy goal of meeting the educational needs of every child will remain beyond reach and too many of our children will still be left behind.
• William Bushaw is executive director of PDK International, The Professional Association in Education - E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Conclusions of the 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes
toward the Public Schools:
· CONCLUSION I. The public’s strong preference is to seek improvement through the existing public schools. Policies shaped with this fact in mind are most likely to gain public approval.
· CONCLUSION II. Public ratings of the local schools are near the top of their 38-year range.
· CONCLUSION III. The closer people get to the schools in the community, the higher the grades they give them.
· CONCLUSION IV. Policies at the state and federal levels that build on the assumption that local schools have a high approval rating are likely to gain public support.
· CONCLUSION V. Gaining public support for school improvement will be more likely if proposals are based on the schools in the community and not on the nation’s schools.
· CONCLUSION VI. There has been no decline in public support for public schools. Approval ratings remain high and remarkably stable.
· CONCLUSION VII. Support for vouchers is declining and stands in the mid-30% range.
· CONCLUSION VIII. Those who would implement the charter school concept should ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the nature of such schools.
· CONCLUSION IX. There is near-consensus support for the belief that the problems the public schools face result from societal issues and not from the quality of schooling.
· CONCLUSION X. The public is aware of the link between adequate funding and effective schooling and understands that current funding levels are a challenge for schools.
· CONCLUSION XI. The public’s preference is that the local school board make decisions about what the schools teach. Of those favoring decisions at the state or federal level, two-thirds opt for the state.
· CONCLUSION XII. There is still majority support for at least the current level of testing, although there has been a shift toward the belief that there is “too much testing.”
· CONCLUSION XIII. Large and growing numbers see the emphasis on testing translating into “teaching to the test,” and those saying that doing so is a “bad thing” are nearing consensus.
· CONCLUSION XIV. The support for using a graduate qualifying exam to determine whether a student receives a diploma is strong.
· CONCLUSION XV. There is near consensus that closing the achievement gap is of great importance and that it is unnecessary to sacrifice high standards to do it.
· CONCLUSION XVI. The public attributes the gap to factors other than the quality of schooling but still concludes that it is the responsibility of the schools to close it.
· CONCLUSION XVII. The public belief that preschool programs for children from poverty-level homes will help them to perform better in school when they are teens is apparently so strong that the public expresses a willingness to pay higher taxes to support such programs.
· CONCLUSION XVIII. The public is divided on the question of revising the curriculum to meet today’s needs.
· CONCLUSION XIX. There is majority support for a curriculum that includes a broad range of courses.
· CONCLUSION XX. There is majority support for a college-preparatory program for all students.
· CONCLUSION XXI. There is strong support for a curriculum that requires all students to take four years of math, with at least two years of algebra.
· CONCLUSION XXII. The fact that the public assigns such high importance to each of the six reasons* why teachers leave the profession in the first five years suggests that the initial step in attracting more high-quality teachers should be an effort to make the job more attractive to those who have already entered the profession.
[*six reasons: Lack of support from parents (96%), lack of support from administrators (93%), poor working conditions in the public schools (92%) lack of respect for the teaching profession (89%), low teacher salaries (88%), and lack of appropriate teacher training (84%)]
· CONCLUSION XXIII. Based on years of data from this poll, it would be a mistake to interpret the public’s assessment as indicating dissatisfaction with the current teacher corps. On the contrary, whenever polled, the public expresses great confidence in our teachers.
· CONCLUSION XXIV. The public does not believe that students in their local schools work hard enough in school or on homework outside of school.
· CONCLUSION XXV. The public is divided on the matter of extending the time spent in school.
· CONCLUSION XXVI. Extending the school day by one hour draws impressive support, although one must wonder if it is based on the need for more schooling or the desire to have kids supervised for an additional hour.
· CONCLUSION XXVII. Almost half of the respondents believe they are knowledgeable about NCLB, while just over half believe they know little or nothing about the law. Those who believe they know enough to express an opinion are also divided between viewing the law favorably and unfavorably.
· CONCLUSION XXVIII. That seven out of 10 of those professing knowledge of NCLB believe it is either making no difference in the local schools or hurting them is troubling. Because the effort to comply with NCLB is driving instruction in most schools and dominating efforts to improve achievement, the concerns of such a large proportion of the public need to be addressed.
· CONCLUSION XXIX. A public that rejects the strategies used to implement NCLB is unlikely to provide the support needed if the law is to work. Common sense would call for changes to align NCLB more closely with the public’s views.
· CONCLUSION XXX. Given that half of the public still considers itself uninformed on NCLB and one-third are unwilling to express an opinion, there is still time to make the changes that might bring support for the law.
· CONCLUSION XXXI. The responses of those who claim knowledge of the law bear out this poll’s 2003 conclusion that greater familiarity with NCLB was unlikely to increase public support.
· CONCLUSION XXXII. Public uncertainty about NCLB and, in particular, its strategies, has created a situation in which those who blame the schools for failing to make AYP hold only a small margin over those who would blame the law. Among those professing knowledge of the law, the assignment of blame is still more evenly split.