George Theoharis Q&A: Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools

George TheoharisThe 45th annual PDK/Gallup poll of public attitudes toward the public schools was issued August 21. Among its findings is that many people have little idea what the “Common Core” is, even though it may have a major impact on their children’s future education. Also, the majority of people feel that their local schools are doing OK. We asked George Theoharis, associate professor and associate dean for urban education partnerships in SU’s School of Education, to discuss some of the poll’s results.

Q: According to the poll, many Americans have never heard of the Common Core Standards, even though 45 states are on the brink of adopting them. Can you explain what they are?

A: The Common Core Standards are designed to provide clear expectations in reading, writing, speaking/listening, language and math from kindergarten through 12th grade—what many people think of as ELA [English language arts] and math. The creation of these standards was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with input from parents, teacher, school administrators and education experts.

The idea behind the Common Core is to provide a guide for rigorous, high-level learning so young people will leave K-12 education with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and careers. While the standards describe what students are supposed to learn, individual states are creating curriculum, resources and exams to help schools implement these new standards.

Q: Fifty-eight percent of respondents opposed requiring that teacher evaluations include student scores on standardized tests. In your view, are students’ test scores a valid measure of teacher effectiveness?

A: Of course teachers and school administrators play a major role in learning and have a significant responsibility to ensure that each child learns all she/he can. Measuring and keeping track of student progress and their learning is also a key aspect of education. However, it is widely accepted that state tests measure only snapshots of what students know.

One of the problems in using test scores for teacher evaluation is that there are no test scores that relate directly to what many teachers teach (e.g., K-2nd grade, middle school science, art, music, etc.). And while some teachers have subjects tested that they teach, for example a 4th grade teacher, there are not tests that measure all of the range of what is taught—only ELA and math.

Another issue with using test scores is that it is documented that in the past 10-12 years, since No Child Left Behind was passed, the curriculum in schools has become much more narrow, with less time given to social studies, science, art, music, recess, etc. This reality comes with an increased time being spent on the subjects involved in high-stakes testing—ELA and math—but narrow versions of those subjects.

One of the related pieces of data from the poll is that by and large, respondents trust teachers and administrators. This suggests to me that it is possible that the public sees their own sense of teachers and administrators as more important that what test scores would tell them.

I do support holding teachers and administrators accountable for the learning of students in their care. I also know that we need to hold ourselves collectively accountable as communities for committing to provide the foundation and support that children need in order to flourish—proper health care from pre-natal on, a literacy- and language-rich early childhood education, to name a few.

Q: What are the biggest problems facing the public schools today?

A: There are many challenges that public schools face. I want to highlight two.

First, a big problem that is not talked about enough is the constant state of flux and change that schools are expected to endure. Since the 1980s, schools have had countless new regulations, new curricula, new policy about one thing or another, new priorities about reading or math. School systems and teachers cannot get good at doing what they are expected to do because of the revolving door of reforms. We know stability in teaching staff, stability of implementing rigorous curriculum can matter and that high-performing schools are not constantly in a state of flux.

Second, there are big gaps in our country between the opportunity some students are afforded. Many students with disabilities and students learning English spend significant amounts of time away from their peers and away from the “core” curriculum. We know there is an important relationship between time spent on the curriculum and learning as well as the social benefits of being with peers.

We also have witnessed students spending more and more time being grouped by ability and that students who struggle spend more and more time in remedial learning. There is clear evidence that this kind of grouping does not, and will not, provide a high level of learning and achievement for all students. Yet state and federal policy and school district implementation seem to be expecting remediation and ability grouping (tracking) to provide higher more robust outcomes—which we have decades of evidence to show that it will not.

Q: What do you find most interesting in the PDK/Gallup poll?

A: Year after year there is a large discrepancy between how the public rates their local school and how they rate schools in general. Fifty-three percent of the public this year gives their local schools an A or B rating, but only 18 percent gives schools nationally an A or B rating. To me this feeds right into our historic belief in the United States of local control of schools—perhaps overly simplistically, this belief looks like “Our schools are pretty good because our community does things pretty well as opposed to what is happening in other places.”

This data also provides an important piece of information that any good school administrator or teacher knows: engaging people—parents, community members, etc.—in schools builds an understanding of what goes on in schools and loyalty to what happens there.

Story on SU News