2 new polls offer some surprises in education


This column originally was published by ECM Publications

2 new polls offer some surprises in education

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Two new national polls on public views about education offer some surprises.

The first was released by Education Next, a magazine led by two Harvard professors. The magazine’s mission statement includes the belief that “bold change is needed in American K-12 education.”

The second was released by Phi Delta Kappa, an educators organization generally viewed as “middle of the road.”

Education Next has released a poll annually for 10 years. This is Phi Delta Kappa’s 48th annual poll.

Each poll asked more than 30 questions. This column summarizes only a few that I think will be especially interesting to families.

Several Phi Delta Kappa questions can be useful to schools that (wisely) survey families. Phi Delta Kappa found that 60 percent of parents polled are either extremely or very satisfied with schools’ efforts to inform them about how their child is doing.

However, in other questions that schools might use, Phi Delta Kappa found surprising differences between what people wanted from local schools and how well they felt these things were being accomplished. For example, 90 percent of people surveyed want schools to help students develop good work habits, but only 31 percent said local schools were doing this extremely or very well. Eighty-two percent want schools to help students become good citizens, but only 33 percent think local schools are doing this well.

Next, the public has strong, somewhat surprising views about testing. This idea has been very controversial. Some people believe that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing and that we need a broader array of ways to measure student progress.

However, Education Next found that about two-thirds of the public and parents surveyed strongly support a federal requirement that all students take reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once more in high school. Of the public, 33 percent strongly support and 36 percent somewhat support this requirement, compared to only 13 percent who somewhat oppose and 7 percent who completely oppose this. Parents have similar views, with 32 percent completely supporting and 36 percent somewhat supporting annual testing. Only 24 percent of parents somewhat or completely oppose annual testing.

Both polls found that the majority of the public does not favor allowing families to have their youngsters opt out of testing. Phi Delta Kappa found that 59 percent opposed and 37 percent supported this option. Education Next found that 10 percent of the public strongly supported and 16 percent somewhat supported this option, while 24 percent somewhat opposed and 36 percent completely opposed this.

Here in Minnesota, most education leaders have encouraged participation in testing while giving families the choice to opt out. Educators also are trying to use a broader array of assessments beyond traditional standardized tests to help illustrate what students are learning. I think these efforts make sense.

Phi Delta Kappa found big differences in opinions about the main goal of public education: 45 percent believe it is to prepare students academically, while 26 percent think it’s to prepare students to be good citizens and 25 percent say it is to prepare students for work. Many of us believe public schools should do all of these things.

I wish both polls asked whether a key goal should be to help students identify their strengths and talents and develop those. For me, that’s an important, though not the only goal.

Polls don’t solve any problems in education. But used wisely, I think that they can help identify what’s working well and what needs to be improved. Polls also help educators and policymakers learn what the public thinks of their efforts.

Both polls surveyed families in English and Spanish. View the Phi Delta Kappa poll at http://bit.ly/1V4l6cd and the Education Next poll at http://bit.ly/2c2LozF.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

3 Responses to Joe Nathan column: 2 new polls offer some surprises in education

  1. Wayne Jennings says:

    This is an interesting column advancing important discussion for school practice. I believe in 4 major goals for schooling:
    Responsible citizenship
    Productive satisfying careers
    Lifelong learners
    Talent, interest and potential fulfillment

    Each of these need unpacking so that, for example, good basic skill attainment and work habits show up on each of the goals. They don’t include everything now taught in schools like all kids having to learn higher algebra (thought some should), Godfrey Chaucer and many arcane and generally not essential or useful areas–again some students may show an interest, like those becoming professors of literature or history and those where such knowledge would be necessary for their careers.

    We should measure attainment of these by children in school and as adults. Children in school because the goals are appropriate for fourth graders as for adults. For example, we want kids to be productive and good citizens as appropriate within their realm of age and behavior.

    The four goals above need assessment as to how well students and adults accomplish them. Such evaluations will yield useful feedback to school people for adjusting the curriculum.

  2. Scott Sands says:

    This is valuable information. It would be great if all our educational systems developed feedback loops such as this with those they serve – Teachers, Students, Parents. I would like to see more time and resources devoted to this. I wonder if parent volunteers could help. I also wonder if it would be possible to add open ended questions that allow the various groups an opportunity to express their vision of a good educational environment. Thank you for another thoughtful article.

  3. Fine column today by Mr. Nathan.

    Count me among those who think polls are overrated and under-replicative. What limits the two polls above is that they singularly put the responsibility for achievement on the shoulders of the schools, while nothing is said about how essential parental involvement is in making this happen.

    Joe makes a key point in reminding us how important it is for students to identify their goals, strengths and needs. I’d take that one step further: Each student should create their own Personal Learning Plan, and take greater responsibility for their own learning. Yes, the parent needs to be an essential part of that process too….along with mentors and other teachers.

    I’ll close in suggestion that more policy studies need the involvement of active K12 educators, and not just higher-ed. In my 56 years in education, I’d submit that the former know a lot more about what works than the latter. Higher-Ed brings the research and theory. K12 brings the pragmatic knowledge of what works.