Ep. 247: Teen Survey – Thoughts and Opinions on Schooling During the Pandemic

April 15, 2021

In our recent Public Opinion Tracker Deep Dive, we asked teenagers about mental health since the start of the pandemic, social issues they care about and more.

Click here to dive deeper into the results.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research, and I am so happy to be joined over the internet, not in person yet—hopefully at some point in the reasonably near future—by my colleagues, Jen Wagner and John Kristof, and we’re talking actually about a very special survey that we did.

So, many of you might be familiar in listening to this podcast about our monthly tracker poll that we put out, our quarterly survey of teachers. This was a specific sub-sample of folks, teenagers, and we were interested in their thoughts. In so many ways, teenagers have kind of borne the brunt of a lot of the decisions that were made around schooling and the coronavirus. They haven’t quite had the same agency perhaps that adults have had. And so, I think it’s really important to understand sort of what they’re thinking about, how have they processed the last year, and sort of what’s going on there. But I know, Jen, this was kind of your idea. And I realized as that just came out of my mouth, it sort of sounded accusatory—

Jen Wagner: “Thanks, Jen.”

Mike McShane: … as if my first question was going to be how dare you. No, this was your brainchild. Let’s put it that way. This was your brainchild. So, maybe before we get into some of the results, if you want to talk about kind of why we did the survey, what we were hoping to accomplish.

Jen Wagner: Absolutely. Thanks, Mike. And good to be here again with you, John. So, it was my brainchild, and actually, it wasn’t even my brainchild so much as my child was the inspiration for this. Back last year, we were about six months into our work with Morning Consult, and the pandemic was obviously well underway, and schooling had been massively disrupted. And I have a 13-year-old daughter, and we were just kind of talking it through how she was feeling and what was going on, and all that came to a logical conclusion of huh, I wonder if we can ask other teenagers how they’re dealing with this, and how they’re feeling through the pandemic, and how they feel about whether or not they have choices in their schooling.

And it turns out, Morning Consult, by a stroke of luck, has the ability to reach out to 12 to 17-year-olds as one of their many audiences that we can tap into. And so, we did our first survey of teens, released it back in August of last year, and we thought, “Okay, that was really interesting to peek into their mind mid-pandemic. Why not come back and do the same thing over now that we’re, hopefully, nearing the end of things, and they’ve got a lot more schooling under their belt in whatever model their school chose?” So, that is how we got here today. So, I owe it all to my 13-year-old that we are able to talk about our latest round of results.

Mike McShane: Wonderful, and yeah, so this poll was in the field from February 22 – 24 of 2021. And sort of as Jen said, we were aiming for the 12 to 17-year-olds. I think there were some 12, 13-year-olds who were in there but in total, we have results from 1,000 teenagers. So, John, I might throw this first to you. So, again, all this stuff is available on our website edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com and along with our as we said, with our monthly and quarterly general population and teacher surveys. But I want to pull out a slide that stood out to me and it’s probably worth lingering on for a moment. So, we asked this question, “Since the coronavirus pandemic started in March of 2020, how have each of the following changed for you?” So, we ask questions about stress, anxiety, personal mental health, everything to personal physical health and relationship with immediate families.

And they had this option. They could say it’s gotten much better, it’s gotten somewhat better, it’s stayed about the same, somewhat worse, much worse. Now, when I first look at this, I mean, there were a couple of very, very negative ones: stress and anxiety. And Morning Consult very kindly calculated the kind of net better. So, you take all the people who said better, you subtract the people who said worse. Something like stress is like a -50. So, there were 50 percentage points more people who said that they were doing worse than doing better. Anxiety is a -39. Personal mental health is a -32. I mean, it seems this was rough. I mean, it was difficult to look at this and not see something rough. But when you look at this chart, what do you see?

John Kristof: Obviously, I see a lot of kids, a lot of teenagers that are unhappy right now. And I’m a person who on these kinds of podcasts, I tend to bring a lot of different answers in. And one answer will make me think of a lot of other answers that we’ve seen, either in the same survey or previous surveys or other questions, and I kind of do the same thing here. Stress, I feel like is a common word with school, generally, but we specifically ask since last year at the same time of the school year how have you been. And almost no one is saying better and anxiety is not anymore up, just reading the same numbers that you did, Mike.

And so, I think to me, what are the causes of this? That’s the million-dollar question. Right? And obviously, kids have spent a lot of time outside of regular school in the last 12 months. But we also have some numbers that a lot of kids are still going to school at least part of the time, but schools aren’t necessarily returning entirely back to normal. And to kind of illustrate what I mean there, I’m going to reference another question that we have in this survey that’s kind of in the same vein. It’s not actually a question. If you go to slide seven, if you will, on our slide deck online, you can see that Morning Consult broke down the answers to these questions by demographic and by learning mode.

And what I noticed is that there was still like an overall negative response by people who were learning completely in-person at the time they took the survey. It was much worse from teens who were completely online, but it was as equally bad between teens who were partially online and entirely online. So, what’s something that there is in common between partially online and completely online? And something that I’m thinking of and this was inspired a little bit by a survey I saw Reuters had done recently is schools that are not entirely in-person are very unlikely to have extracurricular activities, and programs, and things like that for teenagers that we maybe associated with high schools.

So, your robotics club is probably still canceled. Theater is probably still not an option. And when I think of what I did in high school, and I know a lot of my peers did in high school, things that were stress-relieving, things that maybe you looked forward to going to school every day was stuff that happened afterward, of the socialization that happened there, of exploring creativity, or just learning more about something within your interests. A lot of those programs are probably still canceled for a lot of kids, even if they are at least partially in-person. So, I mean, no one answer is going to completely describe all the different reasons because there’s multitudes of reasons, and we could spend this entire podcast talking about why kids are more unhappy. But when I see that there is essentially equal unhappiness between partially online and entirely online, it makes me think there’s something more than just the education itself going on here, I think.

Mike McShane: Yeah. And, Jen, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Morning Consult also, another sort of slide for us, made a word cloud. So, we asked the teenagers what three words best describe how you feel about school right now. And so, the size of the word lets you know how frequently it came up. Top five emotions: stressed, boring, stressful, tired, unmotivated. Sort of jives with this. But I would also be interested in your thoughts in the slide that John was just talking about where we kind of look at this net, all these things. The only thing that was better on net, was better since then was relationships with immediate family. So, I’m sort of interested in that as well. So, it’s all this—they’re stressed, anxious, personal mental health is going down. Again, so, so difficult in all of these things that they’re struggling with, but there was this one bit of like that relationships with immediate families seem to be more positive than negatives. How do you make sense of all of that?

Jen Wagner: Yeah, and I was actually going to key in on that because I don’t like to be all Debbie Downer about everything else on that slide which is pretty negative. Real quick, I think John’s onto something with the extracurricular, other activities, and not just related to school. I think as we look back over the past year and look at some of the CDC guidance that came out, initially, I think we treated all kids the same. But as the pandemic went on, we started to realize, okay, some of these younger grade levels, these younger kiddos are not as susceptible to the coronavirus, so maybe they can go back to doing the things that they were doing, whereas these older kids got lumped in with all of us grown-ups and their risk assessment was much the same.

And so, you’re right. Like, I think about my daughter. She’s a swimmer and she hasn’t been able to be in the swimming pool with her team for more than a year. And it takes such a mental toll on her because she loves the sport, but she can’t do it. And she keeps asking like, “When’s the team going to come back? When’s the team going to come back?” And I don’t have a good answer for her because these teenagers get lumped in again more with adults in terms of how we’ve treated them throughout the pandemic. But, yeah, I think you raise a really good point, Mike, about that last question we asked about… The indicator that we asked was how are your relationships with your immediate family? And this was the only one that we had that “net better score” in the positives, and it was only six points and that’s, again, that’s total better minus total worse. But you’ve got 33% of kids reporting that they now have better relationships or much better relationships with their immediate family.

And I think as I kind of anecdotally talk with my friends and read social media, that’s been a large part of the pandemic that for those families I want to qualify, for those families who have the resources or did not have their livelihoods threatened, are not frontline workers where they are very stressed, but for those families who were able to take advantage of this time at home, it seems like the teenagers are bearing out what the parents are saying. It’s been a really, kind of a nice time to work through your top 100 movie list or go out in the yard and throw the baseball. And again, anecdotally and personally, that’s been true in our house. It’s been really nice to get to spend more time and not be over-programmed and going from this to that, and have tons and tons of homework. So, if there can be a positive in this question, hopefully, it’s that people got to spend a little bit more time with their teens.

Mike McShane: I will say for our diligent listeners here, I want to reward them. There’s some research that I am working on right now where we’ve done some polling of homeschooling families and others. And I hope all of you remember what Jen was just speaking about there because it will be reinforced by data to come in the future. That’s a little Easter egg. The real fans will see what’s it like at Disneyland. You see Mickey Mouse’s hiding places. People are going to go back and you’re going to remember this. But no I agree, Jen. And I think that, as I said, only more data will come out to back up what you just said.

John, I do want to kind of come back to something you were talking about earlier. So, one of these questions we ask the students about, as you brought up, the in-person versus in-person and online versus completely online. In our sample of students, 16% of kids were completely in-person at the time of the survey. Thirty-seven were in a mix of in-person and online, and 45% were completely online. And kind of what you brought up there, which was the mix of in-person and online. So, we asked the question, sort of, “How is it going?” They could answer very well, somewhat well, not that well, not well at all. What we found was that for the students that were completely in-person sort of overwhelmingly answered either very well or somewhat well. It came down for a mix of in-person online and completely online, but it was still… Those numbers were not as low as I thought they would be. So, for the mix of in-person online, 18% said that it was going very well; 46% were saying somewhat well. So, it’s definitely more positive than negative. The same was true for completely online. Twenty-two percent very well; 41% somewhat well. So, again, we’re in the 60s there, both of these. So, I’m sort of interested in some ways it seems to me like, yes, it is true that it seems like in-person students liked more than the others, but it’s not like they hated the others.

So, and I should say before I have you answer that, I know this has been an absolutely fraught conversation talking about these things. This is the point where we have to insert the disclaimer that says we just ask people’s opinions. So, this isn’t like they don’t work for the CDC of saying what was a good idea or they’re not education researchers saying what’s a good idea or a bad idea. We’re just asking how it impacted them. So, take it with a grain of salt. But again, what they said was that in-person went better, but that the other two, it’s not that they necessarily went poorly. They went better than they did worse. So, how do you think through all of that?

John Kristof: Yeah, it is interesting that majorities in all three categories basically said school’s going good. It is also kind of jarring to try to interpret that after learning about all of the mental and personal struggles that teenagers have been having over the past year. So, that’s kind of striking point number one. Striking point number two, at least for me, I kind of wonder, I see these numbers of completely in-person where, what is it, 80% say school’s going at least somewhat well. And I’m trying to think if there was ever a point in my life where I could ask my peers if school was going that well, and four out of five of them would say yes. I don’t know. So, I don’t know if there’s just a lot of positivity about going back to that routine and back to the in-person socialization.

So, I’m not quite sure because we didn’t ask them to specify academics. We were just asking, “Hey, how is school going, given your format?” I think the most significant thing to me is that even though there are majorities of partially and completely online saying that school’s going at least somewhat well, the enthusiasm behind them is much lower. So, again, I recommend if people are at home, checking out the slide decks online because it’s helpful to visualize this. Whereas the completely in-person results for very well are 44%, it’s 18% for partially online and 22% for completely online. So, half or like less than half of enthusiasm for very well.
And I think that’s important because that’s a student thinking beyond like, “It’s going fine. It’s going okay.” And it’s a student saying like, “Yeah, I’m enjoying it,” or “Yeah, I’m getting something out of it.” What I’m trying to say is a huge chunk of the students that are saying school’s going well for partially/completely online are somewhat as opposed to very, whereas there are more students in-person saying school is going very well than somewhat well.

Mike McShane: That’s a good point.

John Kristof: Yeah. It’s hard to dissect exactly why, but there is something that in-person students are saying, “There is something I am actively gaining through this now that I’m back in person.” I feel like that’s an important takeaway.

Mike McShane: So, Jen, maybe one piece of data that you could bring into this was we asked students about whether or not they should have some say in what type of school they attended this year and then whether or not they actually did. And we saw a gap in some places between students saying that they would like to have more say in where they go to school but then not actually having that in reality. Do you think that’s maybe part of this, which is like the degree to which kids are saying they’re liking something or not? Some part of that’s tied in that they feel like they didn’t have control over the situation?

Jen Wagner: I absolutely do, and I think John makes some really good points about that prior slide. And again, we only ask people like, “Hey, how well is it going?” I would love to know more of how those two slides compare with each other. So, of the students who told us, “Hey, you know what? This completely online thing isn’t going all that well, struggling, I have poor internet access. My brain wanders off.,” whatever. How many of those students had a say in that particular schooling mode and what would they have chosen otherwise?

And I think this leads us in preview of coming attractions at about three minutes, but it leads us into the conversation that I know, Mike, you’ve obviously had before the pandemic about that sort of hybrid model. How does that work? Do kids really want to be in that environment? Do parents want to be in that environment? Because I think you are seeing a gap between how involved teenagers are in their schooling choice and how involved they want to be. And I think that’s been reflected out in those, “hey, how’s it going” questions. Were they involved in that choice? Would they like to be involved in that choice? And if they could, what would they choose?

Mike McShane: Jen, I’m so happy that you brought that up because now I don’t feel as guilty of just doing some shameless self-promotion, but there was a question on here. Many of you are probably aware, if you’re not at this point, then I don’t know if you’ve been zoned out at every one of the podcasts I’ve been on recently, but I do have my new book out, Hybrid Homeschooling: A Guide to the Future of Education. And in some of our podcasts that we’ve done about our general population survey, we’ve asked about would people be amenable to this idea of hybrid homeschooling in the future where students formal classes for part of the week and they’re schooled at home for part of the week.

So, we asked our teens this and interestingly, 44% of teens said that they would prefer some kind of hybrid schooling. So, maybe they only go to school four days a week, three days a week. Interestingly, and again, it sort of aligns with our polling generally. So, we asked both parents and teens and we compared that to our February tracker poll. Fourteen percent of parents said that they would want to do full-time homeschooling or full-time schooling at home, even if it’s virtual or remote learning. Twenty-one percent of teens said that they were into that. So, what I found fascinating was that teenagers were much more likely to say that they would want either full-time homeschooling. They were slightly less likely to say that they would want some kind of hybrid homeschooling, but still, 44% said that they would be into that. Only 34% of teenagers said that they want to go back to full-time, five-day-a week schooling.

So, maybe you all don’t have to necessarily weigh in on that one. I personally find that very interesting. I think it aligns with the research in my book. I had the opportunity to talk to students. All of the students that I talked to really liked the model and for lots of reasons. Interestingly, kind of aligned to a lot of these issues around mental health, stress, anxiety, all of those things. Many of the students I talked to and their parents that I interviewed brought up the fact that that hybrid model was much better for their mental health. The schedule better fit the rhythms of their families. They had more quality time. It was a more supportive environment. So, this one will be interesting to watch in the future. We’ll see how that goes.

As I have said, the caveat of many of these things—hey, I don’t want to come off just as a shameless self-promoter—that these numbers are what they are. And again, these are preferences. We’ll see whether it actually shows up. One of the questions that we asked, and it’s fascinating, children are the future. Wait, was that Whitney Houston? Am I right in saying is that the greatest love of all? I believe the children are our future. Partially, I’m reminded of this, I just watched the Coming to America 2 on Amazon, recommended. But there’s the version of that song and the original from back in the ’80s. But recommended, it was funny.

But so we asked this question. Given the fact that children are our future, whether Whitney Houston said that or not, we asked these questions about what issues are most important to them. And we gave them a list of things to choose from—everything from the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, climate change to abortion, immigration, affordable housing. They had a whole bunch to choose from and we asked them to pick their top three. We included education reform in that list, though it should be said, it’s not in the top five. So, the top five things that they are interested in or their priority issues: COVID-19 pandemic, with about 60% of respondents saying that that’s in their top three. Black Lives Matter movement, with 50% in their top three. Climate change, 37% in the top three. LGBTQ rights, 36%, and then school re-openings, 29%.

So, I’d be interested in what y’all think. Well, lord willing, the COVID-19 pandemic will not continue to shape our politics when these teenagers become sort of voting and participating adults in our society. But looking at the whole swath of these issues, is this the future of our politics? Is this sort of flash in the pan type issues? What did y’all see when you saw this prioritization of the issues that they care about?

Jen Wagner: I’m happy to jump into here because yeah, I live it every day with a teenager. And I think people do tend to oversimplify this age group and say, “Oh, they just see what’s right in front of them. They only care about what’s on TV or their social media platform,” which we’ll get to in a second. They do care about school re-openings. I mean, this issue affects them. It is front and center. But I think we asked them about education reform and they’re like, “I don’t really know what that means.” Right? I see my daughter receives CNN 10 in her classroom every morning. Right? And yesterday they were talking about is Amazon, a monopoly. So, we had a long conversation about why Amazon is actually not a monopoly, side note, but that’s what they see. They spent 10 minutes on that. They see the COVID-19 coverage. They see Black Lives Matter rallies. They see climate change stories. And so, that’s front and center. I will use this as an opportunity and then I will shut up and let John talk to shamelessly promote our new TikTok channel at EdChoice.

Mike McShane: I was just—

Jen Wagner: You can go.

Mike McShane: It’s so funny. You beat me to the punch because I was actually going to promote that. So, outstanding. I’m glad you’re bringing this up.

Jen Wagner: Yeah. And so, one of the challenges I think we face as school choice advocates is are we speaking the same language that the next generation of advocates is speaking, and are we actually getting in front of them where they go to get their news, their information. And so, both of you are our new TikTok reps from our research world. If you want to check it out, we’re over there on TikTok, @edchoice.official because there was actually someone who is named, I think, Ed Choice, who has the @edchoice handle, but we’re trying it out.

Mike McShane: Sorry about that, Ed.

Jen Wagner: I know, right? It’s a real bummer. We tried to reach out to him and see if he’d give it up. But, look, we’re trying to get out there in places where teenagers who are soon to be our decision-makers and voters are going for their information so that they can get the right information, and so that hopefully, we can raise ed reform and school choice up that list of issues they care about.

Mike McShane: Yes. And so, as Jen brought up, maybe our last kind of question when we can talk about here was social media platform use. So, we asked this question, “Which of the following do you use?” They could select up to three options. So, the top things that we saw, YouTube, 95% I think put them in their top three, then texting, Instagram, phone calls. I got to be honest, that one kind of surprised me. Right? I thought phone calls were done and that kids only texted and shows how ridiculously out of step I am. But phone calls, then video calls, then Snapchat, TokTok, Twitter, Facebook, Twitch—which I think I can safely say I’ve never watched anything on Twitch—then Reddit, chat rooms. Again, didn’t know those still existed. WhatsApp, which I think, don’t sleep on WhatsApp. It’s a great platform. But anyway. VSCO, which I literally have no idea what that is, and then Tumblr.

So, when you all look at this sort of stuff, and we also were able to chart the kind of growth between August of 2020 when we saw a big growth in Twitch, big growth in Reddit, big growth in video calls, probably shouldn’t surprise us, but also growth in phone calls. So, John, resident young person here, not quite 12 to 17 but certainly closer than I am, how do you see these platforms? And frankly, kind of to what Jen was talking about, how do you see the interplay between sort of work broadly construed like what we do in research or in advocacy, how does that intersect with these platforms that kids are using to get their information and communicate with one another?

John Kristof: Sure. Well, I mean, I don’t want to act, I can be the resident “young person.” I am still on the border of millennial age, which is apparently old now, according to a comment a colleague of ours made in a meeting earlier. But I also don’t want to be like resident comms person because we do have that person here. But I can say that I grew up in a different age of information than, I guess, at least my parents did so I’m just going to use them in my head as a comparison group. For a long time, digital information, or rather just broad telecommunication outside of print—which took a long time to circulate and things like that—it was largely through television and through radio, and people had very limited time to get their message out, but they had a huge audience if they were able to get a media hit there. And now, information is just so widely available, and yet demand for it has also never been higher.

So, I think a big part of advocacy work is figuring out how to navigate that information space if I can speak really high level about it. There’s so many teenagers out there who want to learn about things. They are information sponges and they will pick up all sorts of things, whether it is entertainment or something more educational, but there’s also a degree to which that line is blurring quite a bit. And so, you’ve got to go where kids are going for information, where everybody’s going for information.

So, YouTube I think was a huge game-changer. I don’t even know how long it was ago, almost 15 years ago in… I was going to say democratizing, but maybe decentralizing video information and giving people control of video information to give out to people, and even 10 years ago, Philip DeFranco was a super popular YouTuber just breaking down news for kids, that was really popular among kids so they could understand everything that was going on cable news that their parents were watching in a way that they’d understood, and he was a game-changer. And TikTok is the thing now, and I think if you want to get your message out there, you can’t wait for kids to come to you, for people to come to you. You have to figure out how to speak in a language that they’re interested in listening and also in a way that makes sense to them.

Mike McShane: For sure. Jen, I’ll give you the last word here, tying all this again, this was your idea, and I mean that in the best sense of it, but sort of your kind of takeaway from all of this.

Jen Wagner: Yeah, and I guess I say that as the resident old person and mom of a teenager. Yeah, everything John just said is 100% and we can’t sit around, and this is true in all advocacy work. We can’t sit around and wait for the would-be advocates to come to us. But there has been, and I would use the word democratizing, a flattening of the ability not just to have to get earned media and have stories get out there and information out there through that very limited group of outlets to… I mean, YouTube, the very name of the platform, it’s you as a person. You’re the television. You’re the conduit. You’re the content creator. And that’s so cool.

And I think as we, for me as a mom, as we walk away from this round of the teen survey and, spoiler alert, there will probably be… we’ll probably check back in with this group in another six months or so, I think it’s really, really important that we listen to them. My 13-year-old tells me all the time like, “Oh Mom, I hate being called just another teen. I have thoughts and opinions.” And they do. And if we do our job as advocates, if we do our job as parents, we can really tap into something.

I mean, they’re open to new ideas. They’re open to this hybrid model they’ve been thrust into over the past year. They are sponges for information. So, we got to make sure we’re giving them the right information, giving them a factual information, and really empowering them as the next generation, not just of choice advocates, but as parents who are going to be choosing potentially for their kids and to just help them grow into that choice-oriented, that choice-centric mindset that I think we all have, but we didn’t come up through a choice-based system. They are, and if we can keep that going, gosh, the sky’s the limit. I am such a Pollyanna today, but it’s just really cool to be able to tap into their thoughts and opinions.

Mike McShane: For sure. Absolutely. Well look, Jen, John, it was great to be with you today, chatting about this. As Jen said, look forward to more of this stuff in the future, and also look forward to our future conversations about our general population surveys and our teacher survey. I do want to give a shout-out. I have been remiss and I want to apologize. I feel I should end this podcast every time with a special shout-out to Jacob Vinson who produces this podcast, who edits it. You won’t even know, but I flubbed something earlier in this and he’s going to make me not sound like a moron. We wouldn’t be able to do this without him, and I feel like a garbage person for not having acknowledged him long before this. So, Jen, it’s been great to be with you. John, it’s been great to be with you. Jacob, you’re a star. And I look forward to talking to all of you again in the future on another edition of EdChoice Chats.