To Know NCLB Is to Like It, ETS Poll Finds

By David J. Hoff — June 19, 2007 6 min read
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The more Americans learn about the No Child Left Behind Act, they more they like it, according to a poll scheduled to be released this week.

When asked whether they back President Bush’s K-12 initiative, respondents to the poll were evenly split over supporting the 5-year-old law. But once the questioner described the law’s goals and its emphasis on holding schools to academic standards, support for the law grew substantially, according to the poll commissioned by the Educational Testing Service.

The poll was scheduled to be released June 19, and this summer, congressional committees may act on a bill that would reauthorize the law, which is one of President Bush’s biggest domestic accomplishments.

“The basic upshot of this survey is … policymakers have to earn [reauthorization] from the public by going out and selling it,” said Allan Rivlin, a partner in Peter D. Hart Research Associates, one of the Washington-based firms that conducted the survey.

Focus on Fixing Schools

In particular, he said, that means reassuring voters that classroom instruction won’t be reduced to test preparation and reminding them that the law attempts to fix low-achieving schools.

Public Opinion on No Child Left Behind

Three major surveys conducted over the past year have examined public attitudes toward the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002.

Educational Testing Service
“The No Child Left Behind Act provides federal funds for school districts with poor children in order to close achievement gaps. It also requires states to set standards for education and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met by all students. In addition, No Child Left Behind provides funding to help teachers become highly qualified. It also provides additional funding and prescribes consequences to schools that fail to achieve academic targets set by their state. Based on this statement and anything else you may have heard, would you say that you have a favorable or an unfavorable opinion of the No Child Left Behind Act?”


Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Organization
“From what you know or have heard or read about the No Child Left Behind Act, do you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of the act—or don’t you know enough about it to say?”


Scripps Survey Research Center
“Based on everything you’ve heard, do you want Congress to renew the No Child Left Behind law, do you want Congress to make changes in the law, or do you want Congress to cancel the law?”


“The public is squarely focused on trying to fix, rather than just identify, schools that are struggling,” Mr. Rivlin said in an interview.

And Americans want to know “what do we do to help students, not what do we do to punish schools,” said David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, the other firm that conducted the survey.

Advocates for the law say the survey’s results identify the central issues they face when they talk to audiences where people aren’t experts on the law. Too often, people associate the NCLB law with President Bush—and are against it if they oppose the president—or complain that it overemphasizes testing, said Susan L. Traiman, the director of public policy for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies.

“Once they hear that … it’s about identifying the kids and the schools that need assistance and making sure the assistance gets to them, then their support increases,” said Ms. Traiman, whose group is leading a coalition of business leaders that is lobbying for the law’s reauthorization this year.

But others say the survey also reminds policymakers that they need to sell the public on the general goals for raising all students’ achievement to proficiency and closing the test score gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups.

“They almost need to backtrack a little bit to rally people around the broad themes, and then explain how you’re going to get there,” said Joseph Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that supports charter schools and other nontraditional methods of improving public schools.

Confusion and Clarification

The Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit assessment and research organization based in Princeton, N.J., was scheduled to release the poll results this week. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, were scheduled to speak at the event near the Capitol.

Rep. Miller’s committee is likely to take up his plan to reauthorize the NCLB law at some point this summer, with the goal of passing a bill before the presidential primaries begin early next year. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee also is working on a bill, but hasn’t set a timetable for approving a proposal.

Although the ETS poll’s findings look to be different from others on the surface, those differences may be explained by the information respondents received in the questions asked in the different surveys.

The ETS researchers interviewed 1,526 adults from May 4-15. The poll has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

They found that fewer than half the respondents could identify the main components of the law when presented a list of educational interventions, such as ending social promotion, creating a national test for high school graduation, or giving vouchers to students to redeem at private schools.

Forty-seven percent gave the correct answer: The law requires states to set standards for student achievement and assess students to determine whether they’re meeting them. To receive their portion of the $23.6 billion in federal funds under the NCLB law, states must test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and mathematics and report the progress in ensuring that all students score as proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Before those polled were told those and other details about the law, they split almost evenly in their support for it. Forty-one percent said they supported it, and 43 percent said they did not, with 52 percent of Republicans endorsing it and 35 percent of independents and 35 percent of Democrats objecting to it.

But once the interviewer mentioned the law’s focus on standards and accountability, requiring highly qualified teachers, and other details, 56 percent said that they viewed the law favorably. Thirty-seven percent still opposed it.

Wording Differs

By comparison, a recent poll conducted by the Scripps Research Center, a polling project based at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, told interviewees that the NCLB law “requires states to test elementary students to determine if schools do a good job teaching,” but tells them that critics say the law overemphasizes testing.

With those prompts, 34 percent said the NCLB law was a “good law” and 43 percent said it was “not a good law.” Responding to the next question, 48 percent said Congress should change the law and another 14 percent said Congress should “cancel it.” Just 23 percent said “renew law.”

The Scripps survey included three questions on the NCLB law in a poll that also measured public attitudes toward personal characteristics of candidates in the 2008 presidential race, and asked respondents how they felt about their own high school educations. The poll surveyed 1,100 people from May 6-27 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

By contrast, the ETS poll asked 25 questions about educational issues and no other topic. It’s the seventh annual poll ETS has commissioned from bipartisan polling firms.

Overall, the ETS poll’s findings suggests that Americans “support the underlying logic” of the NCLB law, said Mr. Rivlin.

The public likes that “it’s not just about funding, and it’s not just about accountability measures,” he said. “It’s both.”

But policymakers need to tread carefully when they design interventions to help schools failing to meet the accountability goals, the ETS poll found.

Respondents’ favorite response to low-achieving schools is to require that school to create a turn-around plan that addresses their specific needs. Their least favorite: Replacing teachers in those schools.

The ETS poll also found support for national standards. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would prefer a set of common standards for all schools, rather than trusting state officials to set challenging standards.

“It’s pretty consistent with what other polls have found,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization that supports national standards. “This is one of those issues where a vocal minority can carry the day, and it has to date.”

Even with public support for national standards, one political scientist said Congress is unlikely to tackle that issue this year. With well-entrenched opponents, mostly among conservatives, adopting the standards while also making major fixes to the law will be difficult, said Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

“They have to do so much repair work on No Child Left Behind,” he said, “a move toward national standards would be too much to do right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as To Know NCLB Is to Like It, ETS Poll Finds


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