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Public Ignorant of ‘No Child’ Law, Poll Finds

By John Gehring — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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While school board members, state superintendents, and policy wonks from Washington to Hawaii may not be able to go a day without thinking about the No Child Left Behind Act, an annual survey shows many Americans know little about the law that has brought a host of new federal mandates to schools.

The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the nation’s attitudes toward public schools found that 40 percent of the respondents knew very little and 36 percent knew nothing at all about the legislation passed nearly two years ago. Among other provisions, the law requires that states test 3rd through 8th graders annually in reading and math and show progress for all demographic groups.

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View the accompanying chart, “A Lot to Learn.”

“It is an uninformed public on No Child Left Behind,” Lowell Rose, the poll director for Phi Delta Kappa, said at a press conference held here Aug. 20 to release the results.

The 35th annual poll, sponsored by the Bloomington, Ind.-based Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional association for educators, is published in the September issue of the journal Phi Delta Kappan. The Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup Organization polled 1,011 adults through a national telephone sample this past spring. The margin of error was 4 percentage points for most questions in the poll, but higher for responses involving subgroups of those polled.

Means Questioned

When told about the testing requirements and other policies in the law aimed at improving schools’ performance and accountability, the public disagreed with some of the core elements of the law, the poll found.

The 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll is available from Phi Delta Kappa International. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Under the law, a school’s performance is evaluated annually based on the performance of its students, but 84 percent of those surveyed said a better way to judge the job a public school is doing would be to determine whether students show “reasonable improvement from where they started.” Only 14 percent said the best way to measure a public school’s success would be on a “fixed standard” such as a test.

Most respondents, 66 percent, also said a single statewide test would not provide a fair picture of whether a public school is in need of improvement. The same percentage said the current emphasis on standardized testing encourages teachers to teach to the test. A focus on testing will mean less emphasis on art, history, and other subjects, 88 percent of the respondents said.

On other measures, however, the public seemed to agree with goals of the federal legislation. Closing the achievement gap between generally lower-scoring black and Hispanic students and their higher-scoring white and Asian-American peers—a major goal of the lawranked high among the public’s priorities for education. Seventy-one percent of those polled said that it was very important to close the gap.

But while the federal law places the responsibility on schools to close that gap, the public attributed the disparities in achievement to lack of parental involvement, students’ upbringing, and lower family income—areas outside a school’s control. Only 16 percent attributed the gap to the quality of schooling a child receives.

The public also thinks teachers deserve higher salaries, according to the poll, with 59 percent of respondents saying teachers’ salaries are too low, and 65 percent saying that teachers should be paid higher salaries for agreeing to teach in schools designated as needing improvement.

“This poll shows the support of the public for the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act—namely, raising student achievement in general and closing the achievement gap in particular,” Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group, said at the press conference.

“But the poll also shows popular concerns about the means prescribed to achieve those goals,” he said.

Views on Vouchers

Overall, members of the public hold their local schools in high regard, the poll found.

Asked to grade their schools, 48 percent of the respondents gave them an A or B. That figure jumped to 55 percent for public school parents and to 68 percent for parents asked to grade the public school their oldest child attends. Fifteen percent gave their local public schools a D or F.

But 30 percent of minority respondents gave their communities’ schools an A or B, 18 percentage points below the national total.

Nearly three out of four respondents, 73 percent, also said they believed improving schools should come through reforming the existing system, rather than finding an alternative approach to public schools. Sixty-nine percent expressed that view in 2002.

When asked whether they favored or opposed allowing students to choose a private school to attend at public expense, 60 percent of respondents, an increase of 8 percentage points over last year, said they opposed vouchers. But at the same time, 62 percent said they would send their child to a private or religious school if they were given a full-tuition voucher. Just over half (51 percent) said they would do so if they received a half-tuition voucher.

A new question asked respondents if states should offer vouchers now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program. Most respondents, 56 percent, said they opposed such a policy, while 42 percent— about the same as last year’s 39 percent—favored having their states offer voucher programs.

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