Teacher Preparation

Obama’s Popularity Can Shift Opinions on School Reforms, Study Says

By Dakarai I. Aarons — August 31, 2009 1 min read
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A popular president’s strong stances on education issues can shift the public perception of that issue, according to a new poll released today by Education Next magazine and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

Knowing President Obama’s opinion on the issues gave a boost to those who said they supported the goal, from a 11 percentage-point increase for charter schools and a 13 percentage-point increase for merit pay.

Researchers say the so-called “Obama effect” was strongest on those who shared the president’s Democratic political persuasion. Positive research findings also had an impact on those who said they would support a policy goal.

To see the effect in work, one need only chart the rise and fall of the popularity of the No Child Left Behind Act with that of the president who championed it, George W. Bush. The main federal K-12 education law, conceived with strong bipartisan support, was wildly popular with parents when it was implemented in 2002 at the height of Bush’s post- 9/11 popularity.

But a poll released last week by PDK and Gallup shows the law, like the former president, is highly unpopular among many Americans, even though most Americans favor testing students in math and reading in grades 3 to 8.

That poll showed similar high support for merit pay for teachers, increasing charter schools and developing common assessments, all priorities of the Obama Administration.

Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has put his support to work, pushing states to change laws. (Duncan also has $5 billion in competitive grant funding he’s dangling in front of states and school districts.)

How can states and districts use the President’s popularity to advance otherwise unpopular or controversial plans locally? Could Michelle Rhee use Obama’s support for merit pay to come to an agreement with the teacher’s union in the District of Columbia?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.