We asked teens how COVID-19 has impacted their schooling, what social issues they care about the most, and more.
Paul DiPerna: Hi, welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Paul DiPerna, vice president of research here at EdChoice. I’m joined today with Jennifer Wagner, our vice president of communications and Mike McShane, our director of national research. So we’re here for a new line of conversation stemming from our EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker polling series. And so for those of you who haven’t joined us in the past and previous podcasts, every month, we pull a nationally representative sample of the general public and report that out through our blog and other social media. And we also poll teachers on a quarterly basis. And we do this in partnership with Morning Consult, who is a leading market intelligence and survey research firm. So what’s new? This is the first time we have surveyed America’s teenagers. And so back in August, we surveyed nearly 1,000 teens ages, 13 to 18, and this was all done via online survey from August 17 to 19.
So, for this most recent version of this poll, we wanted to see where teens were last spring, how they felt about how the pandemic affected their schooling and learning. And we also wanted to see how they felt about going back to school and some of the feelings around back to school and what some of their concerns were, what safety measures they would like to see in schools. And so, over the summer, we’ve seen a lot of attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and some of the protests that were going on in different cities around the country. And so social issues have definitely risen to the forefront in a lot of Americans minds. And so we wanted to see where teenagers were on what kinds of social issues really matter the most to them and who they felt comfortable talking about those issues with.
And so to take a step back, I mean, I think Jen and Mike, if we polled teens today, when we’re doing this podcast, I think we might see some different kinds of emotions that we saw a few weeks ago, because we just learned that TikTok and WeChat may be getting banned and teens won’t be able to use those kinds of apps and social media platforms moving forward. So we might see some anger and frustration and being upset and disappointment. But that was one of the questions though, to just move into the polling. One of the questions we asked was, how do teens feel about going back to school? What are some of the feelings that they felt? And so anxious, nervous was a big response, feeling scared, worried, right? Were some of those responses, to either of you, did that seem like a surprise or is there anything that stood out to you?
Jennifer Wagner: I’m really, really interested in this survey data? Because in part, I have a 12-year-old who will be 13 in a couple months, and it was really interesting to hear in the e-learning phase and then to hear her and her friends talk as were preparing to go back to school in person about how they were feeling. And I think a lot of the media coverage around this particular subsection of a generation has been pretty negative, a lot of coverage of especially high school kids not respecting social distancing or wearing masks. And I think it’s really interesting now that we have this data back to see a couple of key points, which is number one, teenagers are actually very concerned about COVID-19. They’re not this happy-go-lucky, carefree group of individuals running around behaving recklessly. They are worried about it.
They are specifically worried about infecting a family member or getting infected. So, 81 percent said they’re worried about infecting a family member. And 70 percent said that they’re concerned with actually getting the virus. So I think that was very surprising. I also think it was heartening that they understand the value of the safety measures that are being put in place. And they think at least when it comes to wearing masks that their friends and their peers will do so. So again, I think it’s been remarkable to be able to take a look at this age range because a lot of other polling firms have not been able to reach out to them and then to have some of this data that really does push back on the narrative that teenagers are reckless and not taking this seriously.
Mike McShane: Yeah. And I think it’s so funny, Jen, I think that’s exactly right because it’s just such a tired trope of people looking down at teenagers and I’m a millennial and I’m an old growth millennial. So I think depending on when people started, was that you were born in ’80 or ’82 and I was born in ’84. So I’m clearly a millennial, but I’m possibly the only one. And for my entire cognizant life, people have been talking about millennials and how we’re just like the worst and whatever, and oh, wait, it turns out that that might not actually be the case. Oh man, it’s crazy. So it’s so funny to see the same pattern, repeated, maybe some millennials and others looking at the younger generations and not being able to understand them. And it’s fun.
Go back and read things written 2,000 years ago. And it’s like, “Kids these days—what are we going to do?” So it’s just hopefully one of these times we’re going to learn from it, but if we haven’t learned it in the, what, 50 generations from then to now, we probably won’t. One of the things that stood out to me is we put out this really interesting word cloud that had the different things that kids said and the relative prevalence of them. And the thing that stood out to me was how some of the big terms were these mirror images of one another. So the two biggest ones that stand out to me are nervous and excited. And then the next are happy and anxious. And it just seems, as someone who used to be a high school teacher, you see that that’s very common I think in young people, in people in this age group, is that they can be both things at the same time.
That they’re both excited and they’re nervous. They’re both happy and they’re anxious. And so it’s an important thing to think about as we make claims about kids and what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking because it can change from day to day and it can change from minute to minute. So they may have deep concerns about something, but then another thing happens and it sends them in a new direction. So a lot of these feelings that they have probably aren’t super fixed. New information comes in and they change it because they just haven’t had the same life experience that other people have had. So they vacillate back and forth as new information becomes available to them.
So I would expect to see, if we were to survey these kids every month, let’s say we surveyed them every month for the rest of their lives. I would imagine continuing seeing these wild swings and maybe the amplitude of it gets smaller and smaller as they get older because each new piece of information is a little bit less novel. But I found this really fascinating. It was cool to see what they think about this because we spend so much time talking about them that it’s great to actually hear what they have to say.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah. Mike, just to follow up what you were going to say. So I’m a Gen X-er and we’re the angsty, anxious generation. So I was looking at those responses. I was thinking about what could be different this school year than maybe in previous school years. I remember feeling anxious or worried going back to school, but scared and sad seemed to be ones that popped out to me that maybe speaks to the pandemic a little bit. But yeah, this is something we hope to track in the future. And also just a quick side note to some of our listeners, to the extent that you’re interested in the report, the questions that we asked and also the cross tabs that look at the different demographic breakouts, I encourage everybody to go to the website for our Public Opinion Tracker. It’s edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. And so just to go into the next set of questions, we also asked teens, “How did things look back in the spring and what resources they had available?” Were there some results there that you found interesting, Jen?
Jennifer Wagner: There were. It was interesting to me how behaviors have changed and quite frankly, how they didn’t, as a result of the pandemic. And obviously, students were no longer able to go to class at school, so they weren’t able to use that to connect with their friends and peers. And we have a great slide in this deck that shows where they do go to socialize online. And as you alluded to in your intro, Paul, the potential outage or removal of TikTok or WeChat could be devastating for this age group. And I can speak from personal experience of being the mom of a 12 year old, who she keeps trying to teach me the TikTok dances, and I just keep failing miserably at it.
Mike McShane: You’re not doing that Taylor Swift dance, where the camera pushes away and then everybody dances? You’re still working on that one and it hasn’t quite come together yet?
Jennifer Wagner: Maybe by the next time we get together, I’ll have that down pat. It is funny though, like we were talking in an email offline here about the things that we’ve learned from TikTok. It’s a remarkable platform. But one of the things that really did stand out to me is the desire to go back to school in person. It was not strong when this poll was mid-August, but we had almost 25 percent of our respondents tell us that they don’t have internet access at home to do online classwork. And that was stunning to me. I live in Indiana. We obviously have not great broadband out in our rural areas, but it was surprising to me that that number of students reported not being able to access the internet at home. And I don’t know if that also stood out to you where you live, but we obviously have some work to do if we are going to, in the broader school choice movement, use this as a pivot point to embrace more online learning or more different hybrid models of learning. So we’ve got some work to do.
Mike McShane: Yeah, it was really interesting. Here in Kansas City, I know when the pandemic broke out, I’m on the board of a small nonprofit called LEANLAB Education. You all should check it out, it does great things. But it’s like a incubator accelerator for educational entrepreneurs. And that organization did a pivot back in March when they saw what these problems were to try and solve this connectivity problem, because it was something that they did some surveys from schools one other. And yeah, it was just gobsmacking the number of students who didn’t have, or if they had internet access, they didn’t have the adequate bandwidth to be able to do this. And that’s one thing that’s actually worth thinking about, well, I guess there’s probably two things that were worth thinking about.
The first one was that I think at the beginning of the problem, people thought this was a device issue more than a connectivity issue. And so it was shipping Chromebooks left and right. And it turned out that like that actually wasn’t the problem. You can get Chromebooks to kids and it’s not that expensive, but it’s not that difficult. It’s the connectivity that’s the challenge, is actually getting those things connected to the internet. But the other piece of it is just for families that have multiple children and potentially multiple parents working from home, just the bandwidth to have, if they’re trying to do synchronous learning or something where you’ve got live video conferencing on six devices. Here in the Silicon Prairie, we’ve got Google fiber. So maybe we are able to weather that better than others, but that’s also something that was difficult to think about because there was such a push to do more robust online learning, which is awesome and good.
And I’m all for it and that’s great. But if you’ve got four kids and two parents, you’re drawing a lot of bandwidth on that and then multiply that out from household to household. So I think those are definitely issues that are interesting. But yeah, I was surprised Jen, like you, at the degree to which kids seem to be cool with online learning. I thought that it was going to be, kids were going to hate it a lot more, but it’s interesting. Who knows? Maybe the more asynchronous nature of it has given them more time to do other things. Maybe they’re able to move more at their own pace. Maybe they have a little bit more independent learning. That’s going to be interesting to dig into in the future, but yeah, I thought they were going to hate it a lot more, the thought they were going to say how soon can I get back in with my classmates? But my guess, that’s not the case.
Jennifer Wagner: Well, it’s been really interesting and I know Paul, you can speak to this too as a parent of school aged kiddos, my two they’re back full-time in person at their private school wearing masks all day. They were excited to go back. They were all pieces of that word cloud. They were both excited, anxious and sad and happy. But they’re five and a half weeks in at this point, and both of them have asked if they could go back to what they call homeschooling, which is generous. It’s not homeschooling, it was e-learning because I, myself, am not a home educator and also have a full-time job. But both of them have asked, and the reasons that they’ve asked are exactly what you just said, Mike, it’s they want to move at their own pace.
And especially for the nearly 13 year old, getting up at 6:30 in the morning and putting on a school uniform and sitting in a classroom all day period is hard. And then add on top of that, wearing a mask, not being able to have their normal food service, it’s rough. And so they’ve both said, “Oh, I wish we had an option.” And our school didn’t give us an option, which was frustrating. And Paul, I know we’ve talked a lot about your e-learning experience that you’re still in the middle of and how that’s going.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah. So, this conversation in the results that we have on teens… So, our daughters are both in elementary. We have a third grader and a fifth grader. Third grader’s been back full-time in person, loves it and just could not wait to go back. And it’s just been so good for her—just compared to what we saw in the spring. And then for our fifth grader, she’s doing a hybrid thing right now where it’s two days in person and then three days at home. And we’re also like you, Jen, we’re in week six of school and the whole online thing has definitely worn over and we’re starting to see a lot more pushback. So this is the bigger point I guess I’m trying to make is that I feel like there’s a lot of this conversation about differentiating by grades or spans—primary grades, middle schoolers and high schoolers.
I think online learning, remote learning, has very different cache to each of those populations of students. And so, yeah, I mean the high schoolers that I’ve talked to in our neighborhood, there are also, even though they’re going back in person, they also like that self-pacing and more independent learning ,where at least with the two in our household, they liked the social aspects of school and being around their friends. Not that teenagers don’t, but I think teenagers will have a little bit more flexibility and have more outlets to do that thing outside of maybe the school building. So yeah, it’s fascinating. The results are really interesting.
I’ll get away from my tangent now and go back to some of the poll results that we had. And so we saw that there were a lot of good sized proportions of teenagers saying that they lacked internet access at home, even those dedicated devices to get schoolwork done. One that stood out to me was their access to teachers. And so almost half said they didn’t have enough access to teachers for any questions or follow up about schoolwork. And that jumps out at me. How would that look differently if they were full-time in person? And then there were still substantial percentages that said that the spring remote learning experience did not go well at all, or all that well. Almost 40 percent total had a negative reaction to that question. So I guess, going into this school year and Jen, you had mentioned this about the preferences for going completely online or hybrid or completely in-person, where there’s some interesting findings there that stood out.
Mike McShane: I think in some ways it’s related to what you just said is it’s almost like kids see the potential in these media. They see the potential of online learning and they see those, and that seems to be what they’re into. Because you’re right, there’s this weird thing they said, “Well, this didn’t necessarily go very well, yet I still want to give it a try,” which you have to respect the optimism of youth, right? We have been grizzled by life’s experiences. And so if it goes poorly, we say, “We never want to try it again.”
So I think it’s actually one of these things is like we’re learning some of these fundamental things about the way kids look at schools. But it’s still fuzzy around the edges because we haven’t quite figured out how to do it right. So that’s the thing of picking out these little seeds of what these kids are seeing and their experiences and what they’re liking and what they’re disliking. And it’s probably going to take some time, and ideally not in the middle of a global pandemic, when we think about how can we better design schools to meet those needs.
Jennifer Wagner: I also want to touch on, and we didn’t really get into this in the blog post that frames up this report, but as we look at moving, hopefully knock on wood, past this global pandemic at school choice more generally, I think we don’t know yet what parents and students will want in K-12 education once there’s a vaccine and going back in person perhaps becomes the norm again. But we did ask the eighth through 12th graders, what amount of say they had in choosing their current school. And it was shocking to me, as someone who’s about to embark on this journey with a seventh grader and soon to be eighth grader who her school taps out in eighth grade, but more than a third of these students said they had no say in choosing their school, which is shocking to me, right?
Because I work in the school choice movement. But that was alarming. And obviously when we asked them if they should have a say, a whole lot more of them said that they should. But one of the reasons that I wanted to pursue researching 13- to 18-year-olds is because they are our next generation of choosers. They will presumably go on, get older, get jobs, get married, have kids, do all that good stuff. And how do they look at their own experience? Did they have a say? What amount of say will they give their kids? And so it’s fascinating to me to see the gap in these older kiddos not having much say in their choice of schooling type.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah. And that also really surprised me. So, among those eighth to 12th graders that we surveyed, like you mentioned, it was 35 percent said that they had no choice. And then when looking at the percentage who would like to have a say in choosing their school, almost three quarters said they would like to have at least some say in choosing their school. And so there’s already that disconnect among those teens going into high school and in high school. And we also had a similar question about those who were high school graduates, which smaller sample size, so a little bit of caution around the numbers, but those actually do line up a little bit more. So, it seems like there is this disconnect between choosing and K-12 or particularly for high school, and then comparing that to the choosing process and decision-making process for higher ed and going off to college. So yeah, those are interesting findings.
Jennifer Wagner: Perhaps that’s a good segue into the last section of the report of… What are kids interested in and what are they looking at as issues that they care about? And sadly, education reform is not high on their list. So we may have a hurdle ahead of us in terms of making them care more about the issue of school choice and school choosing.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah. So we asked these questions about social issues. And so just generally, what are the social issues that really matter to teenagers today, at least at that point in time in August around back to school, and then who are they comfortable talking about these kinds of issues with? And I think there are some not huge surprises there. The Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus outbreak are both big, big issues in the minds of teens right now. And following on the heels of just so much attention given to both of those topics over the summer.
But then like you mentioned, there are implications for us in the education reform space that we have a room cut out in terms of building awareness and understanding about these different types of issues and policies that we like to talk about. And then in terms of where they go, it goes back to what we were saying at the beginning of the podcast, it’s interesting to see where teens are going to talk about some of these issues, and TikTok and Instagram are right at the top and Facebook and Twitter are middling. But I don’t know if you guys have any reactions to that.
Mike McShane: Yeah. I have a take, and I don’t know if this will be agreed with, and that’s okay. But when I look at the results from what issues you care about, it seems to me that these are heavily driven by recency, right? So, if we look at the top results, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, 2020 presidential election. And then LGBTQ rights is next, but then behind that is police and criminal justice reform. So of those top five, four of them are probably the ones that have been most in the news right now. If you remember, was that it’s time before the coronavirus is like a flat circle. So I don’t remember exactly when it was, but if you remember when Greta Thunberg did the climate strike and everything. I remember at that time, all the conversation was the only thing kids care about is the climate right now, and they’re going to be climate voters forever.
And so that’s one thing to maybe keep in mind with a lot of these things is the degree to which younger people, and actually I would imagine that this extends to most people, care most about the things that are in the news right now. Some of the other things that we asked. Look at one on there, it’s like something like the Confederate flag. I would imagine that when South Carolina was debating it coming down and there were people climbing up flag poles and taking it down and it was national news, then that number would be a lot higher because kids have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives. And so they’re going to care most about what’s going on there. So I would be a little bit reticent to draw too many long-term things based on this, just because it’s going to be shaped by the events of the day. I don’t know. You may disagree with me on that one, but that’s at least when I look at it.
Jennifer Wagner: I think that’s right. I think it’s the shiny object. It’s what’s on the news each night. It’s what they see on TikTok, what they’re talking about with their friends, what they’re talking about in their classrooms, if they’re back in class. I think that definitely is true of teens. And to your point, Mike, it’s true of us older folks. We have the whole span of generations here by the way, because I was born in 1980. And so I am right between the two of you and I don’t have a generation. I’m just the lost generation, the Oregon Trail generation they call us, I think. But yeah, I think this certainly makes the case for us to continue polling this population, in the coming months and years, to find out which of these issues are issues that are going to stick and which of these issues are ones that are going to fade away for them as they, again, turn that corner from right now, they’re just observing for the most part.
Some, obviously older teens, are participating in the public discourse in rallies, in advocacy events. But they’re really going to turn that corner as they get into college and they go on into their twenties, which of these issues will be paramount for them. And how can we, in the school choice movement, how can we move that education reform 20 percent right now, saying that it’s one of their top three most important issues, how do we move that up the list and help them understand that their experiences in K-12 education, the things that they might want to see for their own families someday are important and they need their attention? So I don’t know, but as Paul said, we got our work cut out for us.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah. And I think just to quickly wrap up and follow up, I think that’s a great way of saying that we need to be following up with teens, calling to see if their attention is changing over time. And so that’s something that we at EdChoice hope to do as part of the larger public opinion tracker project and series is to follow the attitudes, opinions, sentiment of teens over time to see to what extent they’re stable over time, or do they change pretty rapidly and are they very sensitive to what’s in the news and other kinds of external factors and events?
So maybe we’ll just stop there. And I just want to say thanks again to both you, Jen and Mike, for a great conversation about the results and this new poll of American teenagers. And I also want to point out to our listeners that they can download the report, the demographic tables and results, and the questionnaire that we use. They’re found at our website for the Public Opinion Tracker, and the link for that is edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. And when you’re there, in the upper right-hand corner, there’s a tab for resource downloads and that’s where you can access all these downloadables and they’re there for you. And we hope that you find some interesting data and numbers that can maybe be of use and of interest to you. With that, I would just like to say thanks again for all of you listening and we’ll look forward to being with you again on EdChoice Chats.