Is Uncle Sam Ed Reform’s Biggest Liability?

There’s apprehension in some ed-reform circles that things have gone sideways.

There’s the resistance to Common Core coming from the right and the left. There’s frustration with ESEA waivers. There’s the mess in Newark. There are twelve students demanding Harvard divorce Teach for America.

But each of these is, of course, an anecdote, and “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” So are these chapters in a larger backlash-to-reform narrative, or are they just well-publicized exceptions to the reform-is-winning rule?

I’ve spent some time going through four recent surveys of the views of the public, educators, parents, and insiders. They offer encouragement to the reform community, though with one important exception. In short, many of today’s most prominent reforms are quite popular, but it looks like folks are perturbed by a meddlesome Uncle Sam. (If you have time, I recommend your taking a gander at the data from Education Next, Phi Delta Kappan, Whiteboard Advisors, and Education Post.)

Consistent with public opinion data going back decades, today’s Americans think their local schools are doing fine, but they think schools in the rest of the nation are seriously troubled. Whether you ask the public or parents, only 1–4 percent believe the nation’s schools deserve an A.

Though people rate their local schools much higher, there’s broad agreement that low-income kids, even in our esteemed local schools, aren’t getting what they need. Only a third of the public (and only one-quarter of African Americans) think their local schools deserve an A or B for their service of economically disadvantaged kids.

Moreover, well over half of the public believes that education is on the “wrong track” and that their students’ schools need to improve. In fact, three-quarters of African American and Hispanic parents worry that their schools won’t prepare their children for success in today’s world.

As a result of the public’s concern, there is broad support for education reform. Education Post actually tested support for the concept “education reform” and found that 77 percent of respondents had a very or somewhat favorable response. Results were even more positive for specific reforms.

Nearly three-quarters of all parents or grandparents of school-age children responded very or somewhat favorably to public charter schools. Similar results were found by Education Next and PDK (Paul Peterson explains the small differences here).

Education Post also found strong support for what many fret is a radioactive subject: standardized tests. More than two-thirds of all respondents were supportive, and higher percentages of African Americans and Latinos responded favorably.

One of the most important findings spanning the surveys is the strong support for recent reforms related to educator effectiveness. According to Education Next, about 60 percent of the public favors making tenure contingent on student learning, and a majority support tying teacher compensation to student learning. Reform of tenure and teacher evaluation is also broadly supported.

It appears that the public either read The Widget Effect or understands from experience the wide variation in educators’ effectiveness. According to Education Next, while the public rates many teachers highly, it would also assign one-fifth of local public school teachers a D or F for the quality of their work. Importantly, the teachers surveyed would give 19 percent of teachers nationwide a D or F.

The biggest caution for reformers relates to its use of the federal government to get things done. The public seems to be pretty fed up with Uncle Sam in its schools.

The Obama administration has cast a larger shadow over K–12 policy and practice than any of its predecessors. The public is responding with a Victorian, “We are not amused.”

According to PDK, only 27 percent give President Obama an A or B for his handling of schools. Similarly, according to Whiteboard, only 27 percent of insiders approve of the administration’s handling of K–12 issues. They give Secretary Duncan a 64 percent disapproval rating. PDK found that 87 percent of parents want their local boards or state leaders (not the feds) to have the greatest influence on what’s taught in schools.

It appears that Common Core’s association with the federal government may explain its modest support in these surveys. Though a strikingly high number of respondents admit knowing very little about CCSS, Peterson notes that the brand is “toxic.” PDK found a majority of respondents opposed (as do some recent state surveys); Education Post and Education Next found slightly better numbers.

In light of the other findings in these surveys, the Common Core/federal government pas de deux should serve as a warning: Beware of Uncle Sam bearing ed-reform gifts. Though Race to the Top seemed successful in the short run, it may have permanently damaged federal competitive grant programs. Though federal incentives (which Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn called “inappropriate”) helped Common Core spread rapidly, they are at the heart of today’s vociferous opposition.

So ed reformers, buck up! Just make sure the ed-reform buck stops at the statehouse and not the White House.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Common Core Watch

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