Viewpoint

Lawmakers out of step with parents on education

At a June rally, CMS teacher Charlie Smith addressed the legislature’s failure to adequately fund education.
At a June rally, CMS teacher Charlie Smith addressed the legislature’s failure to adequately fund education. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

This week Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup released their 47th annual poll of American attitudes about public education. By phone and online, 3,499 people gave answers to questions ranging from testing to Common Core.

Their responses aren’t surprising. What is surprising is how out of step our legislators are with the will of their constituents.

Or maybe that isn’t surprising. After all, money talks – and education reformers pushing policies unpopular with the public have lots of money to fund political campaigns.

One of the basic tenets of education reform is that high stakes standardized testing is an effective way to measure student achievement – and by extension, school quality and individual teacher performance. However, parents list test results as one of the least important measures of school quality and said there is too much testing.

How, then, do parents evaluate schools? According to the poll, by the level of student engagement, not by test results. Despite the emphasis on getting students “college and career ready,” the public sees school as something larger – a place of important social learning and exploration, a time to consider more than one’s immediate future.

Although the federal program Race to the Top requires participating states to include student test scores in teacher evaluations, 61 percent of public school parents oppose this idea. Race to the Top also requires states to adopt “college and career ready” standards such as the Common Core, another reform initiative the majority of parents oppose.

The pushback against Common Core is easy to explain. Both sides of the political spectrum are skeptics of the national standards – though for different reasons – and in an election cycle, candidates have had multiple opportunities in the media to inform the public of their opposition.

The opposition to tying student scores to teacher evaluations has a different origin. Parents know their children’s teachers – and they know their children. They don’t see either as mere data points or part of an algorithm but as participants in a relationship that can’t be quantified.

The vast majority – 70 percent – rate their children’s schools as excellent, giving them a grade of A or B. When asked to grade the schools in their community that their children do not attend, 51 percent give the community schools an A or B. That number falls to 21 percent when parents are asked to grade the nation’s schools.

Why the seeming contradiction? Where parents get their information is key. They know their children’s teachers and schools – and they know they are doing a good job. When it comes to schools with which they have no personal experience, they rely on what they are told by the media. School privatizers who profit from students exiting the public schools are driving the false narrative that public education in America is failing. Look who funds anti-education policy initiatives or who is behind the steady drumbeat of teacher scapegoating. Pull back the curtain on many so-called education reform “miracles” such as the charter district in New Orleans and the evidence of corporate money paying for the message is clear.

Perhaps the biggest disconnect between the community and the legislature is how they view the stewardship of public money. According to the poll, lack of financial support is the biggest problem facing public education. On the other hand, pennywise, pound-foolish policies that starve schools of necessary resources are popular with legislators beholden to education reformers. The few elected officials who listen to their constituents know better – and they won’t find the GDK/Gallup results a surprise.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C.

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