Poll: Public Still on Learning Curve For Federal School Law

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Most Americans remain largely in the dark about the No Child Left Behind Act some 2½ years after its enactment, despite a steady stream of media coverage and intensive efforts by the Bush administration and others to raise awareness about the federal law, according to an annual survey of public attitudes on education.

The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll found that more than two-thirds of respondents knew nothing, or next to nothing, about the federal school improvement law.

Of those surveyed, 40 percent said they knew "very little" about the law, and 28 percent said "nothing at all." The results reflect only a slight improvement in public awareness from when the same question was asked a year earlier. At that time, an identical proportion said they knew very little, while 36 percent said they knew nothing at all about the law.

The poll also sought to gauge public perceptions on some of the law’s strategies to identify low-performing schools and improve student achievement. It found a fairly skeptical reaction.

For example, 52 percent of respondents said they opposed reporting test scores separately by race, ethnicity, and other categories, as the law requires, while 42 percent backed that approach. And the vast majority would prefer, if their own children’s schools were identified as needing improvement, that the children receive help at those schools rather transfer to higher-performing schools.

"What [the law] uses in terms of adequate yearly progress and in terms of sanctions, the public is not very sympathetic to those strategies," Lowell C. Rose, the poll director for Phi Delta Kappa International, a Bloomington, Ind.-based professional association for educators, said at a press conference here last week.

But critics suggested that at least in certain cases, the survey introduced a bias that may have led respondents to offer more negative reactions.

The 36th-annual survey appears in the September issue of the association’s journal, Phi Delta Kappan. The Gallup Organization, based in Princeton, N.J., surveyed 1,003 adults by phone in May and June. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 to 4 percentage points, Mr. Rose said.

A ‘Single Test’

The survey asked a range of questions related to the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, as well as on public schools generally, school choice, and other issues.

Opinions toward the law were almost evenly divided. Twenty-four percent said they viewed it either "very" or "somewhat" favorably; 20 percent said very or somewhat unfavorably. Fifty-five percent said they didn’t know enough to say, while 1 percent said they simply didn’t know.

On testing, one question asked whether a "single statewide test" provides a fair picture of whether or not a school needs improvement under the No Child Left Behind law. Two-thirds said no.

Ross E. Wiener, the policy director at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and one of several outside analysts invited by Phi Delta Kappa to comment on the poll, argued that the phrasing of that question was loaded and inaccurate.

"[T]his poll employs questions that are clearly designed to produce particular results," he said in his written comments.

Under the law, schools are deemed in need of improvement if, for two or more straight years, not enough students overall, or from different subgroups, meet state performance targets on reading and mathematics exams.

Several analysts expressed surprise at the negative reaction to the question about breaking down test scores by subgroup, a question whose wording appeared to be less contentious. They suggested that members of the public would be more supportive if they understood the rationale for the approach.

The respondents also seemed inclined against using the test scores of students with disabilities in judging schools, with 57 percent opposed and 39 percent in favor.

Still, the poll found the public generally optimistic about the law’s potential impact. Fifty-one percent said they thought it would help a great deal or a fair amount to lift student achievement, compared with 32 percent who said it would not help very much or not help at all.

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 11

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Poll: Public Still on Learning Curve For Federal School Law
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