The Danger of Conflating Public School Stability with Preservation of the Status Quo

Two major education organizations have recently released public opinion polls describing—after last year’s disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic—Americans’ opinions about public education in general and respondents’ views of their own communities’ public schools.  It is fascinating to compare the sponsoring organizations’ interpretations of the meaning of the results they discovered.

Phi Delta Kappa International describes its mission: “Established in 1906, PDK International supports teachers and school leaders by strengthening their interest in the profession through the entire arc of their career.”  As an organization supporting public school educators, this year PDK probed how the pandemic affected parents’ attitudes and more broadly the opinions of adults in general toward public education.  PDK’s executive director Joshua Starr interprets the new poll results: “For 53 years, PDK has polled the American public on their attitudes toward the nation’s public schools…  (A)s we all know, the 2020-21 school year was anything but typical. So, we decided to take a different tack, setting aside our usual approach to the survey and… zeroing in on the questions that matter most right now: How have the public schools performed during the pandemic, and what are Americans’ main concerns about the coming 2021-22 school year? The results offer a rare glimmer of hope at a difficult time. Not only have the nation’s educators persevered through the hardest school year in memory, but according to our findings, most Americans—especially parents with children in the public schools—remain confident in their local schools’ ability to provide effective instruction and leadership.”

In contrast, several of Education Next‘s corporate reformers describe the new poll from the point of view of that publication. Education Next is edited by  Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Peterson’s program, a pro-corporate reform think tank, is housed in the Harvard Kennedy Center and is separate from Harvard University’s department of education. Education Next is the house organ for Peterson’s program.

Here is the spin of Peterson and three colleagues as they describe the results of the new Education Next poll: “Calamities often disrupt the status quo… Yet not all such catastrophic events lead to an appetite for change… The 15th annual Education Next survey investigates how Americans are responding to the worst pandemic since 1919.  In the realm of education, a desire for sweeping reform might well be expected, given the pandemic’s particularly severe toll on K-12 schooling…  In the political sphere, expectations for large-scale innovation are running high…  Our survey results should temper expectations for major shifts in any political direction and post a warning to advocates of any stripe. At least when it comes to education policy, the U.S. public seems as determined to return to normalcy after Covid as it was after the flu pandemic a century ago… The shifts are not large enough to be statistically significant for some items: in-state tuition for immigrant children, higher salaries for teachers when the respondent is informed of current pay levels, testing students for accountability purposes, tax-credit scholarships, and merit pay.  On other items, such as preschool education, the survey does not include information on the state of opinion in both 2019 and 2021, but we find no evidence of a surge in demand for change and reform.  All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

The Phi Delta Kappa poll should reassure those who have been worried that masses of parents have given up on public schools disrupted by long sessions of virtual schooling and hybrid in-class/online schedules.  “Majorities of Americans give high marks to their community’s public schools and public school teachers for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.  Further, the public is broadly confident in schools’ preparedness to handle the challenges ahead in 2021-22. Teachers fare especially well in these assessments.  About two-thirds of adults overall, and as many K-12 public school parents, give their community’s public school teachers an A or B grade for their pandemic response.  Parents are almost as positive about their community’s public schools more generally, giving 63% As or Bs, though the positive rating slips to 54% among all Americans… People whose public schools mainly used a hybrid model are 7 to 17 points more apt than those with fully remote schools to be confident in their schools’ preparedness to reopen fully this fall…. Confidence on catching up on academics and dealing with social-emotional impacts is higher still among those whose schools mainly used in-person learning.”

Education Next compares polling results from its 2019 poll to this year’s survey, and points to declining support in every single category of policy change, from the kind of reforms Education Next supports—merit pay for teachers, annual testing, Common Core state standards, national standards in general, charter schools, universal private school tuition vouchers, low-income vouchers, and tuition tax credits; to reforms public school supporters prefer—more school spending and increased teacher salaries, to reforms in higher education—free public four-year college and free public two-year college. The Education Next poll even asks respondents about the impact of teachers unions: “A plurality of Americans (50%) say unions made it neither easier nor harder to reopen schools in their community.” “In short,” explains Education Next, “The public seems tired of disruption, change, and uncertainty. Enthusiasm for most, perhaps all, policy innovations has waned… All in all, the public appears to be calling for a return to the status quo.”

It is significant that these polls highlight something that neither organization names explicitly: Public schools are the only widespread institution outside the family itself that parents can count on to support their children, to shape a dependable family routine, to support parents as they learn to understand and appreciate their children’s challenges and gifts, and simply to introduce children to their broader community in a safe and structured setting.

Despite the worries reported in the press that parents might have lost faith in their public schools due to the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19 and some reports speculating that children will leave in droves to online or private alternatives, PDK’s poll affirms that most people will return their children to the public schools they continue to count on as the essence of their communities.

Education Next‘s spinners, determined to impose their set of technocratic reforms, forget to identify public schools as essential institutions and forget that public schools represent the identity and the history of each community. In describing the poll, Education Next conflates the meaning of stability with something else entirely: returning to the status quo.  People who love the stability of their community’s public schools may desperately want school improvement, but they generally don’t choose the kind of technocratic change Education Next supports and includes in its new poll: merit pay, annual standardized testing, the Common Core state standards, national standards, privately operated charter schools, and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Parents and members of the community whose grandchildren and neighbors attend public schools more likely define essential change in the context of particular improvements needed for safety, security, and educational opportunities for the community’s children and adolescents: the return of a shuttered school library—small classes to bring more personal attention for each child—the return of a school nurse—an art program—a school orchestra—enough guidance counselors to ensure that all high school seniors have help with their college applications—better chemistry labs and a Calculus class at the high school—an additional school social worker—Community School wraparound services to support families who need medical care, better after-school programs, and summer enrichment.  Most families don’t look to find this kind of reform in a privatized charter school or by carrying a voucher to a private school.

Education sociologist Pedro Noguera reminds us, “What I try to remind people is that despite their flaws, public schools are still the most stable institutions in many cities, particularly the poor cities. The job now is to figure out how to make them better, not simply how to tear them down, especially given there’s no other institutions stepping up.”

Recently as I explored the books of the late Mike Rose, a profound advocate for the importance of America’s system of public education, I found this passage examining what ought to be the definition of school reform. Rose was not a fan of the status quo; instead he was a strong believer in the need for ongoing public school improvement: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.” (Why School? p. 203)

Rose continues: “My concern… is that the economic motive and the attendant machinery of standardized testing has overwhelmed all the other reasons we historically have sent our children to school. Hand in glove, this motive and machinery narrow our sense of what school can be. We hear much talk about achievement and the achievement gap, about equity, about increasing effort and expectations, but it  is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on the ethical, social, and imaginative dimensions of human experience.” (Why School?, p. 214)

Mike Rose would have been reassured by this year’s Phi Delta Kappa poll, which demonstrates that parents are sticking with the public schools—not leaving in droves as some people had feared.  Rose would have called us all to keep on fighting to ensure that our public schools are well resourced to ensure that every child discovers opportunity at school.

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