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Fewer Americans Back Obama’s Education Programs

By Dakarai I. Aarons — August 25, 2010 6 min read

Support for President Barack Obama’s education agenda is slipping among Americans, according to a poll released last week detailing the public’s attitude toward public schooling.

The survey, conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup Organization, reports that just 34 percent of those polled would give the president an A or B when grading his performance on education during his first 17 months in office, compared with 45 percent in last year’s poll, which covered the president’s first six months in office. (“Obama School Ideas Getting Good Grades,” Sept. 2, 2009.) The president’s grades fell not just among Republicans surveyed, but also among Democrats and Independents, who increasingly gave Mr. Obama grades of C or lower.

Poll respondents, for example, took a decidedly different tack than the president and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on turning around low-performing schools. When asked what was the best solution, 54 percent said the school should remain open with the existing teachers and principal and receive outside support.

The administration’s models for school turnarounds have been criticized because they often require the replacement of the principal and other school staff members, and questions have been raised about whether the approach is based in research.

“Anybody experienced in running an organization as complicated as a school can see pretty quickly that the experience of the faculty and staff and administrators and principals all working together is a huge asset in improving a school,” said John Simmons, the president of the Chicago-based Strategic Learning Initiatives, which has turned around schools in that city while largely retaining their staffs. (“Focus on Instruction Turns Around Chicago Schools,” Jan. 6, 2010.) “Yes, some schools should be closed. Some principals need to be removed, but only after they have had a good opportunity to apply state-of-the-art research strategies.”

Bryan C. Hassel, a co-director of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Public Impact, an education research and consulting company, said he wasn’t surprised by the results, but for a different reason. “Our political leadership hasn’t convinced the American people yet that disadvantaged students could and should be learning much more,” he said in an e-mail. “Nor have they conveyed the magnitude of change that will be required in schools to reach the possible. Without that inspiration, the public is naturally, but unfortunately, cautious.”

Invisible Investments

Taking the Public Pulse on Reforms

Americans agreed with the President on some strategies for improving schools but differed on others in the latest PDK/Gallup poll on education. Here is a closer look at some of the questions in the Gallup poll and the results.

SOURCE: PDK/Gallup Poll

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SOURCE: PDK/Gallup Poll

The president’s lower numbers on education mirror the overall decline in his approval rating, said Shane Lopez, a senior scientist in residence at Gallup and the co-director of the poll. Mr. Obama’s present overall approval rating is 44 percent, compared with 52 percent at this time last year, Mr. Lopez said.

“Despite all of the time and attention that has been devoted to school improvement over the past year and a half, we haven’t won over the hearts and minds of the American people,” said Patrick R. Riccards, the chief executive officer of Exemplar Strategic Communications, a Virginia-based communications firm and the author of the education blog Eduflack. “They aren’t feeling the impact of the stimulus. They aren’t seeing the role of the federal government in school reform.”

In fact, just two in 10 of those surveyed said they were aware that any of the economic-stimulus funding passed by Congress last year helped pay for education expenses in their communities—despite the fact some $100 billion over two years was allocated for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Part of the problem, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, is that education spending is rather invisible to members of the public. They don’t know whether the dollars in their school came from the federal government, state income taxes, or local property taxes.

That makes the public less aware of education stimulus funds than they are of, say, transportation projects financed by the stimulus, said William Bushaw, the executive director of PDK International and the poll’s other co-director.

“Any road project or building project you see, there’s a sign, ‘This road is being paid for’ by [the economic-stimulus],” he said. “There were no signs like that for the funding going to education.”

The poll, released annually by PDK, a professional society based in Bloomington, Ind., and the Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup, was conducted from June 4 to June 28, using a national sample of 1,008 adults aged 18 and older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Bright Spots

Not all the survey news was bad for the Obama administration. Poll respondents showed strong support for work on teacher effectiveness, another priority of Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama. Respondents selected improving teacher quality as the most important national education strategy, besting efforts to create better standards, devise better assessments, or improve failing schools. More than a third of those polled also said improving the quality of teaching is the top task a school must accomplish before earning an A.

Support for changing the way teachers are paid has increased among the public. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said teachers should be paid on the basis of their work, rather than on a standard salary schedule, and 54 percent said a teacher’s salary should be “somewhat closely” tied to the achievement of his or her students.

The public’s focus on teacher evaluation, however, told a different story. When asked what the primary purpose of evaluating teachers should be, 60 percent said to help teachers improve, compared with 26 percent who said it should be used to document ineffectiveness that could lead to dismissal, and 13 percent said evaluations should be used to establish teachers’ salaries based on their skills.

“There is far more interest in supporting teachers than firing them or paying them on the basis of test scores,” said Barnett Berry, the president and chief executive officer of the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality. “It doesn’t mean the American people don’t want a results-oriented profession. They do. I think they are more tuned in with the needs of the field than some of the policymakers who are making the rules and regulations.”

Americans’ emphasis on teacher effectiveness also highlights the need to improve school leadership in the field, said LeAnn M. Buntrock, the executive director of the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education.

“Part of the issue in education has to deal with this leadership issue. One of the main reasons we lose our best teachers has to do with job conditions, and at the top of that list is school leadership—who the principal is,” she said. “If you are good at what you do and passionate about what you do, you want to work for someone who is going to provide you with the right kind of development opportunities, who can motivate and empower you to do the things you are best at.”

Support for charter schools also continued to grow among the public, with 65 percent of respondents saying they would back new public charter schools in their community and 60 percent saying they would support “a large increase” in the number of such schools operating in the United States.

“Once people understand what a charter school is, they like the concept of innovation and allowing teachers to have freedom in the classroom,” said Peter C. Groff, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Parents and communities embrace having options to figure out what is in the best educational interest of their children.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Poll Finds Public Support Slipping for Obama’s Education Initiatives

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