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A large segment of Americans are giving President Barack Obama’s education agenda a thumbs-up, showing broad support for merit pay for teachers, expanding charter schools, developing common assessments, and more, according to a poll released last week.
The survey, conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup Organization, reports that 45 percent of respondents gave the president an A or B when grading his efforts on education during his first six months in office. Mr. Obama received a C from 26 percent of respondents, a D from 11 percent, and a failing grade from 10 percent of respondents. Eight percent said they didn’t know how to grade the president’s performance.
Not surprisingly, the president’s scores were higher among Democrats than Republicans, with just 17 percent of Republicans surveyed giving him an A or B, compared with 70 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents.
That’s similar to the 46 percent who last year said they viewed Mr. Obama as the presidential choice more likely to strengthen public education. (“Survey Gives Obama Edge on Education,” Aug. 27, 2008). The public, however, lacks the same confidence in the nation’s schools as a whole, the poll found, with just 19 percent giving American schools top grades. But respondents favor their own local schools, with 74 percent giving an A or B to the school their child attends.
Viewing Charter Schools
The poll, released annually by PDK, a professional society based in Bloomington, Ind., and the Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup, was conducted from June 2-24, using a national sample of 1,003 adults aged 18 and older. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Support for charter schools has been on an upward trend, with 64 percent of respondents now saying they favor charter schools, up 13 percentage points from last year, and an increase of 15 percent over the past five years.
SOURCE: PDK/Gallup Poll
Mr. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made increasing the number of charter schools a significant part of their agenda, making the flexibility of states’ charter school laws a criterion for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grants from the economic-stimulus law.
“We are not surprised there is an increase in support, because the more people understand what a charter school is, the more likely they are to support it, because it is a very simple, commonsensical idea based on performance and accountability,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, whose organization is a major charter booster.
Yet confusion remains over the nature of charter schools.
When asked for their opinions based on what they had heard, a majority of respondents thought charter schools charge tuition, are free to teach religion, select students on the basis of ability, and are not public schools.
The percentage of people who believe most of the mischaracterizations has declined over the past three years in most cases, but Ms. Allen said the confusion is the result of campaigning against reforms by the “education establishment” and misleading poll questions.
“We have long seen that America needs an education on charter schools,” Ms. Allen said. “Despite how much they have grown over the years, and despite how much support there is among our nation’s leaders on all levels, charters are still relatively unknown unless they are explained in the context of someone’s own community.”
Focus on Stimulus
This year’s poll included questions about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus legislation passed earlier this year by Congress, and its impact on education.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they knew a fair amount or more about the legislation, which William Bushaw, executive director of PDK International and the poll’s co-director, said seemed high. Even so, those respondents had a clear preference that the money be used to save teachers’ jobs. Forty-six percent of respondents said avoiding those layoffs was a priority, with 36 percent saying support for low-performing schools should be top priority.
Despite record amounts of federal money flowing to America’s schools, the recession has heightened concern about school funding. Lack of money for schools was listed as the biggest problem affecting public schools, with a record 32 percent of poll respondents giving it top priority.
Even though interest in teacher quality and effectiveness is running high among policymakers—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is set to spend $500 million in an attempt to improve teacher effectiveness—Americans don’t seem quite as concerned. Just 3 percent of poll respondents said a lack of good teachers is the biggest problem for schools in their communities.
Meanwhile, 72 percent of respondents say they favor merit pay in general for teachers, with advanced degrees, student test scores, and administrator evaluations ranking as the top measures for assigning raises.
In spite of high support for the annual testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the nation’s main federal K-12 education law, just 24 percent of respondents said they believed the law was having a positive impact on their communities.
“I believe that Americans have strong support for the overall purpose of the legislation,” Mr. Bushaw said. “I think their push back has to do more with the punitive components of the legislation.”
Despite the public frustration with NCLB, the poll also shows broad support from Democrats and Republicans for states using a single national test. Mr. Duncan has set aside $350 million from the Race to the Top fund for common assessments to be developed from an effort to create common academic standards for the nation’s schools. The vast majority of states have signed on to the effort.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama School Ideas Getting Good Grades