PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Public confidence in America’s public schools and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) declined in 2008 according to new research by Martin West, assistant professor of education at Brown University. West co-authored the second annual national survey administered by Education Next, a journal about school reform published by the Hoover Institution and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University.
The majority of Education Next/PEPG survey respondents say Democrats are “more likely to improve the nation’s schools.” Findings also show that Americans — especially African Americans and Hispanics — are more confident in their local police force than in their local schools. And the public is now split over NCLB. Half support leaving it as is or renewing it with minimal changes; half think it needs a major overhaul or should be done away with. Some surprising results, however, concern public opinion on hot-button topics: race- and income-based school integration, mainstreaming disabled students, and single-sex education, among others. On each issue, Americans’ views run counter to some current — and staunchly defended — practices in the nation’s public schools.
“This survey indicates that the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the status quo in American education,” said Martin West, executive editor of Education Next. “In fact, Americans are quite critical of their local public schools, especially when compared to other public services.”
The Education Next/PEPG findings come from the most comprehensive and detailed nationwide survey of public attitudes currently available, and the only survey to include a large sample of teachers to more precisely ascertain their opinions. In addition to West, the survey’s authors are William G. Howell, associate professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and Paul E. Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor-in-chief of Education Next.
NCLB and School Accountability
Survey findings show that public support for NCLB, President Bush’s signature education achievement, is waning.
- In 2007, the Education Next/PEPG survey results found that 57 percent of the public supported renewing NCLB as is or with minimal changes; today only 50 percent of the public do.
- There are comparable declines in support among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites.
- Public school teachers are especially critical of NCLB with only 26 percent supporting renewal as is or with minimal changes. By contrast, 33 percent suggest that Congress completely overhaul the act, and another 42 percent recommend that Congress not renew the act at all.
Confidence in Public Schools
Americans offered lower evaluations of the nation’s schools in 2008 than the year before, according to Education Next/PEPG survey results, with some groups registering particularly sharp declines in confidence.
- Twenty-seven percent of African Americans gave the public schools an A or a B in 2007, but in 2008 that figure fell to 20 percent.
- The share of African Americans giving schools a D or an F rose from 22 percent to 31 percent. The share of Hispanics giving schools a similarly poor grade doubled during the period, from 16 to 32 percent.
- In fact, the public has more faith in its local police force than it does in its local schools. This is especially pronounced among African Americans and Hispanics: Fifty-five percent of African Americans and 64 percent of Hispanics gave their police force an A or B, a significantly higher show of support than for public schools.
The 2008 Presidential Election
As support for NCLB has slipped, Education Next/PEPG survey respondents believe Democrats are “more likely to improve the nation’s schools.”
- Sixty-one percent of respondents rate the Democrats’ record on education more favorably, and 62 percent think them more likely to improve the public schools.
- Teachers prefer the Democrats by even larger margins, as do Hispanics and African Americans.
- Democrats and Republicans both tend to favor members of their party when it comes to education, but they do so with varying levels of conviction. Whereas self-identified Democrats prefer their own party on education by margins of roughly 10 to 1, Republicans do so by margins of just 3 to 1. This marks a departure from the pattern observed in 2000, when polls compiled by political scientist Patrick McGuinn showed that only 44 percent of Americans thought that the Democrats would do a better job of improving education, compared with 41 percent who favored the GOP in this area. The Education Next/PEPG 2008 findings reveal a return to the patterns seen in the 1980s and 1990s, when voters consistently favored the Democrats on education by margins of 20 percentage points or more.
Race- and Income-based School Integration
Education Next/PEPG survey results show that 63 percent of the public are opposed to assigning students to schools based on racial background in order to promote school diversity, a practice banned by the Supreme Court in 2007.
- Only 16 percent say that districts “definitely” or “probably” should be allowed to take students’ racial background into account; 21 percent of the public are unsure.
- Among African Americans, only 30 percent think districts should be allowed to take race into ac-count.
- Surprisingly, on the question of assigning students to schools based on family income—a strategy now being considered by many districts as an alternative to race-based policies—the opposition is even greater. Only 13 percent support the idea; 62 percent are opposed and the remainder uncertain.
Mainstreaming Disabled Students
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that disabled students be eduated in the least restrictive environment possible, which has resulted in mainstreaming all but the most severely disabled students into standard classrooms. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of disabled students considered to be “fully mainstreamed” has risen from a little more than 30 percent in 1989 to more than 55 percent in 2005.
- Education Next/PEPG survey results show that neither teachers nor the general public express much support for the practice of mainstreaming emotionally or behaviorally disabled children.
- When asked whether students “who have been diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disabilities should be taught in regular classrooms with other students,” only 25 percent of teachers, and 28 percent of the public, favored the idea. The rest said they should be “taught in separate settings.”
Single-Sex Public Schools
There has been a resurgence of interest in single-sex public schools recently. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education projects that in fall 2008, roughly 400 public schools will offer students at least some opportunity for single-sex education, and a quarter of these schools will enroll only boys or girls.
- According to the Education Next/PEPG survey results, 37 percent of respondents support the idea of public school districts offering parents the option of sending their child to a single-sex school; 25 percent oppose the idea; and the remainder are undecided.
- Support is stronger among public school teachers. Forty-seven percent approve the idea.
- When asked whether they would consider enrolling their own child in a single-sex school, 42 percent of all parents, 48 percent of public school teachers, and 53 percent of African Americans say that they would.
More Americans are homeschooling than ever before. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics estimate that, as of 2003, 1.1 million students were being educated at home, up from 850,000 in 1999.
- According to the Education Next/PEPG survey results, 45 percent of Americans report that they know a family that home schools a child — up from 40 percent in 2007.
- Sixty-four percent of public school teachers report knowing a home-schooling family.
Online education is growing at a fast pace: according to the North American Council for Online Learning, enrollment in online courses in 2000 totaled 45,000. In 2007 enrollments reached 1 million, about 70 percent of which were for high school courses.
- According to Education Next/PEPG survey results, more than two thirds of American parents say they would be willing to have their children take some of their high school courses over the Internet.
- In most instances, the American public favors public funding for online courses that high school students take for credit over the internet. The breadth of their support, however, depends on the purpose of the online education. A majority favor funding for high schools offering advanced courses for students online and for high schools that offer rural students a broader range of courses online. A plurality of 40 percent support funding online classes that help dropouts gain credits, while only 26 percent of the public supports funding online classes for home schooled students.
The Education Next/PEPG survey was conducted by the polling firm Knowledge Networks b-tween Feb. 16 and March 15, 2008. The findings are based on a nationally representative stratified sample of 2,500 adults age 18 years and older and an oversample of 700 teachers. The sample consists of 2,546 non-Hispanic whites, 250 non-Hispanic blacks, and 239 Hispanics. With 3,200 total respondents, the margin of error for responses given by the full sample in the Education Next/PEPG survey is roughly 1 percentage point.
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Full results and analysis of the 2008 Education Next-PEPG Survey are available online at www.EducationNext.org.