Education’s numbers are impressive. More than 50 million children are safely enrolled in public schools as you read this. Another 5.2 million are attending private schools, and an estimated 1.5 million are being homeschooled.
We will spend close to $600 billion on public education this year, roughly $11,800 per child. What are we getting for the money? In her new book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch argues that most of our public schools are better than they have ever been. As you may also have heard, however, Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World argues that our schools are not measuring up, not when compared to schools in other countries.
Dueling arguments aside, I think this school year is going to bring into bold relief some disconnects between and among various interest groups in education, starting with the Common Core. Inside schools, everyone is talking about the Common Core National Standards, the math and English standards developed outside of Washington, DC and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. However, outside of schools, most American voters–62%–say that they have never even heard of it! That’s one of the findings of the annual Gallup/PDK poll on education released two weeks ago. In fact, 55% of parents of school-age children say they haven’t heard of it! And most of those who recognize the term say they don’t really understand it, meaning that this highly-touted reform embraced by policy makers has a tough hill to climb.
In fact, if the Gallup/PDK poll is to be believed, the American public is not particularly happy with the nation’s education policy makers’ support for more standardized testing and for using student test scores to judge teachers and principals. The gulf between the two groups is wide: for example, the public has changed its mind about how test results are used, but policy makers have not. In 2012 52% of the public said it was a good idea to use test scores to evaluate teachers, but one year later only 41% say it makes sense. That’s a huge change. Are policy makers listening?
Gallup/PDK asked whether more testing is helping or hurting education. Again there’s been a major shift. In 2012 only 28% said more testing was hurting education; that number jumped to 36% this year. Today only 22% believe that testing is making education better, a drop of six percentile points.
Policy makers may be wringing their hands about the deplorable state of public education, but in 2013 parents and the public gave local schools their highest grades ever, with 53% giving their local school, the one they presumably know the most about, either an A or a B. (As they do every year, respondents gave schools across the country a grade of C or lower.)
The poll reports that 70% oppose vouchers, a huge increase over the 55% who opposed vouchers in 2012. Support for public charter schools remained consistently high, with about two-thirds supporting them.
The most striking disconnect between parents/general public and policymakers is in the area of teachers. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that most policy makers do not trust teachers, and that starts at the top. The federal government’s “Race to the Top” requires states to evaluate teachers based on test scores if they want federal “Race” dollars or a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Some states have jumped on that bandwagon with alacrity, most recently Tennessee, which has created a system much like that imposed upon Washington, DC’s public schools by former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
In sharp contrast, the Gallup/PDK poll reports that more than 70% of Americans have trust and confidence in the women and men who teach in public schools. And the percentage is even higher for Americans under the age of 40.
Who are our teachers? One of every 100 Americans is a public school teacher, 3.3 million in all. The average teacher will earn $56,000 this year, which–adjusted for inflation–is only 3% more than the average teacher earned 22 years ago, in 1991!
The poll suggests to me that the ongoing ‘war on teachers’ may have taken a critical turn in the teachers’ favor, in the hearts and minds of parents and other adult Americans.
The challenge now is to change the way the folks at the top think and behave, because public policies based on mistrust are counter-productive and seem to be driving good people out of the classroom.
That exodus we can measure through exit interviews. What we cannot keep track of is the number of talented young people who pick up on the more or less ‘official’ denigration of the profession and come to the conclusion that teaching is not for them.