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California Listening

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In California, as in other places, there is a pervasive perception that the public is neither supportive of the public schools nor particularly interested in providing all children with a high-quality education.

This perception is also flat-out wrong. Contrary to conventional wisdom, California's public does care. It is fairly positive about the schools it knows best, it wants to invest more in the schools, and it believes that improving schools is the top priority, even when compared with fighting crime or cutting taxes.

We have just completed what we believe is the most extensive public opinion research project ever done at a state level on the issue of education. What we found was enlightening, and so was the process of engaging in this "listening" to residents of California.

We learned a great deal that those of us who care about public schools can use to make them stronger. The project was time-consuming and costly but a worthwhile investment that we encourage others to consider.

Although we are still mining the data, we have already produced a number of products that will help educators and policymakers. We want to share as widely as possible what we did and what we found.

California is a state that is no stranger to public opinion research. We have polls and focus groups galore. But when we looked, we didn't have clear, nonpartisan data that told us how Californians felt about the public schools and what they wanted from them. Simple questions without clear answers.

Through the support of three foundations, we put together a loose coalition--the California Public Education Partnership--of education-oriented groups to oversee a research effort that would find these answers. My organization, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, had the role of implementing the project.

What we found was clearly encouraging for those of us who care about public education.

Our partnership worked for almost a year to debate what we wanted, craft a request for proposals, and then choose a firm to do the research. The company we chose put together a team of communicators and pollsters who had been involved in public opinion research on education issues across the nation and were both politically savvy and bipartisan. (We had one pollster who works primarily with Democrats, one who works primarily with Republicans.)

Then came the hard part of negotiating among ourselves on the research--narrowing the list of questions to ask on a statewide survey and choosing what would be covered in a series of focus groups to follow. What was most crucial for us to learn?

We could afford a survey that would consist of individual telephone interviews of no more than 15 minutes. That meant we had to cut our initial list of about 80 questions to something closer to 40. And when we field-tested the poll in early February, we learned that we were two minutes too long, so we had still more cutting to do.

In the end, the research involved a survey of 2,207 California residents, including substantial "oversamples" in the San Francisco Bay area and in Los Angeles, followed by eight focus groups in four locations throughout California. It needed to be big enough to look comfortably at subgroups within California. (We have moved from being novices in public opinion research to being able to talk about "random-digit dialing," "proportionate weighting," and "question-order effects"; we are not experts, but we learned a great deal.)

From the beginning, our consulting firm pushed us to plan for widely disseminating the findings. The planning paid off. We budgeted additional funds for a summary report that would make the research clear to educators and policymakers who did not want to wade through longer research documents. We put extra dollars into videotaping the focus groups so we could produce compelling tapes that show how Californians feel in human terms. We worked with the media to write about the results, and we installed toll-free numbers to make it easy for educators and others to obtain the summary, video, and the rest of the research findings.

What we found was clearly encouraging for those of us who care about public education. It was not without downsides, and the news was far from all positive. But we played it straight. Here are the highlights of what we found:

  • Priority. Californians see the connection between improved schools and a better quality of life. The importance of improving education in making California a more desirable place to live was tested against that of fighting crime, of cutting taxes, and of improving environmental protection. We did this through a procedure called "paired comparisons" that forced Californians to choose between these categories, and not just pick one or two from a list of several. In each case, improving schools came out on top. Californians choose improving schools by a large margin over improving environmental protection (77 percent to 19 percent), over cutting taxes (77 percent to 21 percent), and by a more narrow margin over fighting crime (51 percent to 44 percent).
  • Social contract. Californians are committed to a good education for all of the state's children. When asked whether they should expect the state to provide a good public education to all children who live in California, more than eight in 10 agreed (69 percent said they "agree strongly" and 16 percent "agree somewhat").
  • Concern. Californians grade their local schools better than public schools statewide. Nine percent give their neighborhood schools an A, 28 percent a B, 33 percent a C, 14 percent a D, and 5 percent an F. When asked to grade the schools across the state, 2 percent give California's schools an A, 14 percent give them a B, 43 percent give them a C, 22 percent give them a D, and 8 percent give them an F.
  • School reform. Californians are ready for changed schools--49 percent say they think a "top-to-bottom overhaul" is required, while 40 percent would prefer "minor adjustments," but very few (7 percent) say "leave the schools alone." Our focus groups reminded us just how baffling our rhetoric of reform can be to the public.
  • Confidence. Nearly eight in 10 Californians are confident that schools can improve over the next decade--40 percent say they "agree strongly" with this; 38 percent "agree somewhat." At the same time, the Californians in our focus groups expressed pessimism about whether schools will improve. They note conditions such as crowded classrooms, gang violence, and low standards for students.
  • Spending. Nearly eight in 10 Californians believe the state should be spending more on public education--44 percent say "a lot more" and 34 percent say "somewhat more," with only 18 percent saying spend the same or spend less. This willingness is particularly interesting since only a third of Californians know that the state spends less per pupil than 41 other states, and one in four think the state spends the same or more than other states. The focus groups, however, make clear that educators or policymakers should not translate this message into an equal level of support for higher taxes; many Californians believe that the additional money should come from a redirection of existing state resources.
  • California basics. More than nine in 10 Californians put the highest priority on schools teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. But a majority of Californians also put a high priority on requiring American and world history and computer skills. At the other end of the scale, when asked what subjects should be required for graduation, only 28 percent of Californians included foreign-language skills; 27 percent included music, art, and drama; and 20 percent included participation in athletics.

    A majority of Californians support having the schools provide additional services for poor children.

  • Beyond academics. A majority of Californians support having the schools provide additional services for poor children. Nearly two-thirds agree with providing after-school care for children of low-income, working parents. And 50 percent agree with this statement: "Public schools should provide health care, such as dentistry, checkups, and treatment for illnesses such as the flu or infections for children whose families cannot afford these on their own."
  • Values. Californians also want the schools to teach core values such as honesty, integrity, an understanding of civic responsibility, and respect for people of other races and cultures. More than nine in 10 Californians say the schools should teach an understanding of civic responsibility (63 percent say "definitely" and 31 percent say "probably") and respect for other cultures and races (79 percent say "definitely" and 16 percent say "probably").
  • Improvement signs. Californians offer a rich variety of answers to the open-ended question of what changes would indicate to them that schools are improving. The largest group of such "indicators" included quantitative measures such as test scores and grades, followed by outcomes such as fewer dropouts and higher college attendance, and by such qualitative measures as greater student enthusiasm. The public would accept many different improvements, large and small, including such fundamental improvements as up-to-date books and safe and clean restrooms.
  • Choice. Californians support more choice within the public school structure, but are much less supportive of choices that result in shifting resources away from public schools. More than six in 10 Californians believe that allowing parents to choose which public school their children will attend, regardless of where they live, is an "excellent" or "good" idea. Slightly more than five in 10 say charter schools are an excellent or good idea. Slightly more than four in 10 feel this way about vouchers that could be used at private or religious schools, but an equal number say vouchers are a poor idea; the idea has politically polarized California. About one-third of Californians call home schooling of children an excellent or good idea.

The substantial sample size allowed us to make some judgments about how people of different races and ethnic groups feel about the public schools. It also allowed us to divide California into five distinct groups based on how they feel about education. Essentially, this mathematical "cluster" analysis allows us to identify the characteristics of the people in the groups who are the most supportive and the least supportive of public schools. And, most important, it allows us to identify those in the middle, the "swing voters" in purely political terms.

Our goal was to understand how Californians feel about their public schools, to know what they wanted from them, and to get the answers into the hands of the people--lawmakers, school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers--who can use them to make schools better for children. We believe the data to be especially useful, but the real test will be the extent to which policymakers and program administrators use the data to make informed decisions.

We plan to continue listening. We are not interested in just better public relations, but instead in a much deeper public engagement designed to build public support. And that starts with listening.

Harvey Hunt is the executive director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, which is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. The center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the improvement of professional-development opportunities for teachers.

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