"What Are People Thinking" about Education? PEPG Makes It Pay to Know

Sometimes you see or hear about some crazy behavior out there, and somewhat aghast, you ask aloud or think: “What are people thinking?” Other times, you’re just curious about the opinions of those adults around you who can affect important issues, and it’s just: “I wonder… what are people thinking?”

My faithful fans know that taking a look at surveys about education is more than just a passing fancy. Only a couple months ago, the Friedman Foundation’s latest national poll rightly caught my attention. But there’s none I look forward to more than the PEPG/Education Next survey, which covers a large sample of more than 5,000 adults and now has eight years of comparative data! (That’s older than I am… Really!)

In-depth coverage by Michael Henderson, Paul Peterson, and Martin West of the 2014 edition’s results sheds light on a number of important matters.

First, as my Education Policy Center friends continue to speak out for scholarship tax credits as a way to help Colorado kids win, PEPG finds national support remains strong. At 60% to 26%, favorability is consistent with (albeit slightly weaker) the Friedman results. It also once again remains the most widely popular form of school choice proposal. Hip, hip, hooray!

Second, again consistent with Friedman, the new survey found “declining” (especially among public school teachers and among Republicans) and “polarizing” support for the national standards movement known as Common Core. PEPG took a slightly different twist. The earlier survey found that results skew from slightly against to slightly in favor when a clear definition of “Common Core” is added into the question. PEPG just asked the same question, with and without the highly-charged term.

In a separate Education Next article, Peterson describes the effect:

Yet the simple addition of the bracketed phrase “Common Core” induces a drop in the level of public support from 68% to 53% and opposition rises from 16% to 26%. The Common Core label now has a toxic impact on public thinking.

It’s not only the term “Common Core.” The name “No Child Left Behind” also yields similar results.

Third, PEPG found that American adults continue to heavily underestimate how much is spent per student in K-12 and what the average salary is, though the disparities between perception and reality aren’t as great as they once were. The effects of the Great Recession apparently linger on. When informed with the true numbers, the share of respondents who favor opening up pocketbooks for increased funding remains significantly below where it was six years ago.

Fourth, finally, and perhaps most interesting, relates to the evaluation of teachers. A couple weeks ago Fordham’s Mike Petrilli penned a thoughtful and important piece declaring that the most urgent task of education reformers is to move away from the state-prescribed model of educator evaluations, granting more local flexibility while keeping strong accountability in place.

(The Christensen Institute’s Thomas Arnett makes a similar case about how one-size-fits-all teacher effectiveness models clashes with, and constrains, the work in certain innovative blended learning schools.)

More on this theme later, but the source of this style of reform — in Colorado, SB 191 — comes from a very good place. Old evaluation systems were identifying 98 or 99 percent of teachers as effective, not giving instructors meaningful feedback to improve nor helping to weed out those who don’t belong in the classroom.

Interestingly, PEPG’s survey found that on average the public would give half of teachers an A or B grade, and about one-fifth of teachers a D or F. Meanwhile, even public school teachers give similar low grades to one in eight, and hold out the highest marks for less than 70 percent of their colleagues. Many survey-takers either want to abolish tenure, or following SB 191’s edict, want to tie it to effectiveness:

Only 9% of Americans favor “giving teachers tenure” and oppose using student performance on state tests to determine tenure.

For even more Paul Peterson, those of you with an online Wall Street Journal subscription should check out the accompanying piece, “The Public Turns Against Teacher Tenure.” While there may be a little room for nuance in considering other forms of valid measurement beyond state tests, the general theme is clear.

So “what are people thinking?” On these points I’ve raised, and the last one especially, Colorado’s local and state policy makers ought to pay very close attention.