Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.
First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.
No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.
What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.
The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.
Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]
The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]
For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]
So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).
Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”
In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.
We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!