Ep. 289: Monthly Tracker – November 2021

December 16, 2021

In this episode, we share key takeaways from our November 2021 wave of polling as reported on our EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another addition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research. And it is our monthly tracker podcast. For those of you who may be new to this every month, we at EdChoice, in partnership with Morning Consult, poll a nationally representative sample of Americans about what they think about the education system in our country. And every month we get together and we chat about it. You can also, if you’re into more of the written form, even though if you’re listening to this podcast, probably your revealed preferences let us know that you want to listen to it, but if you want to read as well, you can’t always check out the EdChoice blog. My colleague, John Kristof, who joins me today writes a dynamite summary of some of the key points. And you can head to the EdChoice Morning Consult website, www.morningconsultintelligence.edchoice.org. Did I get that right, John? I might have screwed up exactly what it is.

John Kristof: Other way around EdChoice.morningconsultintelligence.com.

Mike McShane: This is the thing, we are a team. We are a team. We are working together. But you can check that out too. You’ve got all the breakdowns of everything that we found, cross tabs, where if you want to look up various demographic groups and what they answered and our full questionnaire. We are nothing, it not transparent.

Well, John, it will looks like we’re a double act today. Unfortunately, our much more brilliant colleague, Jen Wagner is under the weather and we hope she feels better soon. But you’re stuck with just John and I. But we both promise that we will be at least one and a half times more clever than we normally are. And hopefully Jen will be prepared to join us back in the new year. This is our last podcast of the Tracker for the year.

It’s a little bit confusing because our podcasts lag a month. So after the first of the year, we’ll do a podcast talking about the December results. But at least for calendar 2021, this will be our final podcast. So maybe even before we get into these numbers, John, every month we’ve been talking about American sentiment on education. It has been a heck of a year, a lot has gone on. Maybe before we dive into anything specifically, as you’ve been looking at trends, you write them up every month, is there stuff that’s just sort of like, as you’ve looked back on this year, that stood out to you of like, wow, this was something that was interesting, or this is something we didn’t see coming? Just your grand sweep of 2021 in education opinion.

John Kristof: Sure. A general trend that I have seen is that, and maybe this will feel obvious or maybe that it should be the case to some people, but I feel like I can say pretty confidently now that 2021 is not 2020. And what I mean by that, especially in the results that we’re looking at today of November, 2021, comparing it to November, 2020, if we have any long time listeners of the Tracker podcast, you can go back and remember I saw a lot of pessimism when we were looking at November, 2020, which was the first fall that we tried to deal with the pandemic and education at the same time. And it really seemed like we hit a wall in November of 2020 with parent sentiment, with teacher sentiment. And it looked like there was a lot of exhaustion and confusion and a lot of people seemed to bottom out then.

And since then, for a combination of reasons and trying to dissect what those reasons might be is certainly one of the things that we try to do on this podcast. But for a variety of reasons, it was a bottoming at, out in a lot of ways in November of 2020. As a new semester began and promises of vaccines came about and maybe schools got a little more familiar with how they were going to approach the weird year that was last year, fewer schools doing virtual, sentiment began to rise a little bit more. You had your cyclical tapering of expectations in the summer, because people were tired of thinking about education. And that’s just something that you see in education polling a lot. And for a moment when we had fall of 2021, it was another year of what is this year going to look like? There was news about delta, and we were unsure what that was going to look like. A lot more schools were in person or fully in person this fall than they were last fall.

And so there was a bit of an immediate dip in optimism and a bit of a rise in pessimism, at least from what I was able to see and how I was able to interpret the numbers for a bit. But unlike last fall, it looks like people’s expectations, people’s satisfaction seems to have stabilized a little bit. We haven’t hit November when parents are just exhausted of having kids in the house all the time, for example. So I think a combination of things starting to return, little more normal. We have data in our tracker of out what students are entirely in person versus some kind of hybrid approach. Stuff is starting to look a little bit more like it did pre pandemic, and I think that’s starting to reflect a little bit in people’s pessimism and things like that. So that’s the long way of saying things are different that they were last year and hopefully that’s a sign of good things to come in 2022. But we will see.

Mike McShane: What’s so funny is you were taking that trip down memory lane. I was just thinking, because it was probably about this time last year when we were first hearing about these variants, right? Before then, it was just the coronavirus. Everyone was like, “Oh, we’re going to call it COVID or the coronavirus.” And then I think it was right around Christmas, we started hearing about the alpha variant. This was still, I think when they were calling it the UK variant and there was the Brazilian variant. And I think there was South African, which is interesting, this is popping up sort of again now.

John Kristof: Before they realized it’s so hard to identify where it comes from first.

Mike McShane: Exactly. It turns out, poor South Africa. As two researchers, no good deed goes unpunished. It seems like South Africa does a bunch of work to be really good at detecting things and sequencing things. And as a result of that, everyone calls the new virus, names them after them and restrict people’s travel from them. It’s like, “Oh thanks guys. We really appreciate all your help here. We are going to punish you for it.” But you know what it is?

John Kristof: Beating the messenger, at it’s finest.

Mike McShane: No, for sure. So yeah, we’ve gone through all of these variants, Delta now. Little did we know at this time last year when we were just hearing about alpha and beta, that we were going to be one year later at Omicron.

John Kristof: We’re already at Omicron.

Mike McShane: It’s like, oh man. Well anyway, and it’s interesting. Omicron is a good segue because this poll that we’re talking about today was in the field before Omicron was named. I think that wasn’t officially done by the WHO until the end of November. And any conversation that was having about that was probably not picked up by this poll. So it’s good for folks to know, especially as this podcast comes out, we’re recording this on the 10th of December. Who knows? I think if this last year has taught us anything, it is who knows what the future holds. So in a week from now, or whenever this podcast come or whenever you’re listening to it, it could be that the Omicron variant ended up not being a big deal and we’re just going on with our lives, or we could have descended into a nightmarish hellscape. Who knows? Merry Christmas, everyone.

But anyway, so the long and the short of it is it’s probably not captured in these polls. So for anybody who wants to think about when we look at some of the stuff about optimism, pessimism, comfort going back to school, et cetera, know this is pre-Omicron.

And so look, I’ll start where we always start John. One of our most popular questions, one that over the course of the last two years has been cited by newsrooms large and small, the question around feeling comfortable with children going back to school. In November, we saw the total comfortable up six points up to 74%. So 74% of parents said that they were either very comfortable or somewhat comfortable with their children returning to school. Only 24% were uncomfortable, also down six points from October. It seems to me the most likely explanation for that, I think you probably have a couple things here. One would be vaccinations. More and more children are able to get vaccinated and that process is rolling out quickly and people have access to that. It seemed also like the general Delta wave declined in a lot of places. So that seems like a pretty good to punch to settle it down. But did you see anything else in there that you think might drive those numbers?

John Kristof: Yeah. I think the biggest driver probably is you got the, I don’t know if this is a smart way to talk about it, but you got the initial waves of COVID spread in schools over with, if you will. That kind of makes it sound like it was inevitable and I don’t know that it was, but kids come back to school and maybe some schools tried to lift some COVID restrictions in different places in the country this year. And around here where I live, there was some spreads of COVID in the classroom and we saw some ticks and slightly downward in comfort with the classroom, kind of around then at the beginning of the year. But at this point I think, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s combination of parents are comfortable with the trade offs that their schools have chosen to make, and so they are comfortable with their kids returning to the classroom, or if it’s out of a sense of familiarity at this point or whatever it is.

But it’s worth noting that Morning Consult develops a lot of these graphs for us and of the things that I’m especially grateful that they do is for another question that we ask, perceptions of how disruptive you feel that COVID has been to your community, to your personal routine, to your household routine. And they track those trends over time. And then in the background, they show a graph of cases over time as well.

Mike McShane: It’s a really cool graph.

John Kristof: It’s a great graph. Please check it out if you’re into that kind of thing. And one of the things that I’m always amazed by is sometimes there was some association between case numbers and people’s perception of COVID disruptiveness. But oftentimes, it is not the case. And in this particular month you could see that cases were on the rise a little bit, in early fall, and I think that’s something a lot of us heard about in the news. And yet comfort in the classroom increased. So there’s different ways we could approach or guess how parents are thinking about that.

Mike McShane: For sure. And I think one thing that it potentially points to, and we could probably dig into this in some of our state specific work, but just the regionality of COVID. So a lot of the work that we are doing is national in scope, but I think one of the things that we’ve seen over the course of the spring, summer and fall is that at any given moment, coronavirus cases are rising in some places and falling in other places. And so you could have some regions of the tree where it’s rising and so all we can show really are averages. And so we could have some places where I think we are making the assumption that it’s more rational that as cases are going up, people would be less comfortable with their kids going back to school. Maybe that’s a questionable assumption, but I’m comfortable riding that horse today.

But it could be that what we’re seeing is, oh, the case numbers it’s because there’s a lot of cases in let’s say the Northeast. And so lots of folks in the South and Southwest and the Midwest are comfortable and vice versa. But yeah, that’s been another interesting part of it is just how the coronavirus pandemic, over the course of the last two years at any given moment, you could be in a place where you’re in this hotspot and it’s what everyone’s thinking about and talking about and stressed out about. And then at other times you’re like, “Oh, that’s happening in some state, somewhere else.”

But another thing, speaking of hot button issues, a question that we’ve started asking in the last couple of months is about mandates, vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and what people think about them, what people think about encouraging things versus mandating things. And we saw, I think some kind of interesting numbers this month. So looking at teachers, what people think about teachers, and this is all adults, not just school parents. But we ask this question, do you think it should be mandatory or encouraged for the following groups of people to either wear a mask or get a vaccine? And we ask about teachers, professors, employees working in offices, and then students at various times. For this month, we saw for both masks and vaccines, the percentages of people saying that those should be mandatory, went down. So right now, 51% of our respondents said that masks should be mandatory for teachers working in public schools. That’s down two points from October. Vaccines, it’s 47%, which is down three points from October.

And frankly, I think in every category, we looked that other than the youngest children and vaccines, and so students age 5 to 11, in every case, those numbers went down. The percentage of people saying that these things should be mandatory went down. Now it was small numbers, two points here, one point there, but it seems to be a kind of across the board trend. I will say the one difference is mandatory vaccines for children’s age five to 11 attending public schools was up two points. But to be fair, it’s only up to 36%. So it was the smallest group of anybody saying anything should be mandatory, but it is trending in that direction.

John Kristof: Yeah. The two month trend in particular, I think is interesting. Because this will be the second month in a row that we’ve seen mask mandate favor down, just kind of across the board. So depending on the specific type of person and location that you’re looking at. Since September, since the beginning of the school year, preferences for mask mandates have gone down by maybe five percentage points, six percentage points, depending on what you’re looking at in particular. Vaccine favorability doesn’t have the same two month trend, if you will. So last month it was, depending on again, type of person and location, it was take a percentage point, leave a percentage point as far as changes go. And this month it was mostly take away a percentage point in vaccine. I guess it’ll be interesting to see what that looks like next month.

But my interpretation was, okay, so there’s maybe a general sense of gradually there are people who favored mask mandates in various locations, especially educational settings that are beginning to think, well, maybe they don’t need to be mandated, but I still like them. And I take that response because the percentage of people who say don’t encourage or mandate masks or vaccines have maybe increased by a percentage point, but not very much. So it seems like people who believe mandatory are going into the encouraged category, but the encouraged category maybe not going to the neither encouraged nor mandatory category. Anyway, so perhaps this confidence in vaccines are rising among those people on the margin. Maybe there’s a sense of maybe we don’t need to mandate masks. But I will definitely be interested in the three month trend as well.

Mike McShane: For sure.

John Kristof: To see if vaccine mandates begin to take a similar pattern.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. One of the biggest ways in which schools have been trying to cope with the coronavirus is with quarantining, right? Schools all across the country, public, private, big and small have all come to different policies and procedures around quarantining. But we’ve been asking this question, “In the last month, have any of your children quarantine because of the coronavirus outbreak?” And in the last month, 25% of school parents said one of their children has had to quarantine in the past month. Now it’s fascinating that there’s a big private, public difference that in private schools it’s 44%. Almost half of private school parents have said that one of their children has to quarantine in the past month. And it’s only 22% of district school parents.

Now again, quarantining means different things in different places, different states and districts have had that kind of test to return. You take a couple antigen tests that you’re back. Some have said it’s got to be 10 days, some, it’s got to be 14 days. With a quarter of kids, month on month, at least missing some school time. And so we think about the disruption of that, not just that time missed. But then you’re out of sync with the rest of your students. And I just feel for, as I’ve said on this podcast many times, I used to be a high school teacher, this thought that sort of rotating students are being quarantined because of exposure they have in various places, like planning as a teacher and trying to keep everybody moving together. This is really a nightmare scenario.

Now again, I want to be clear, I’m not judging this as a wise or unwise policy. In some cases, you have to do it. Public health folks are saying you got to quarantine people to try and stop the spread of things. I totally get, there’s probably some debate about that, that I am not up on, but stipulating that this is a wise policy to try and prevent the spread of it. I’m just thinking the insane disruption that having a quarter of kids in any given month have to quarantine. It’s just wild. It’s just absolutely wild.

John Kristof: Yeah, definitely. I think some people might be surprised by the disparity in quarantine rates for private school or district school, maybe people won’t be. But I would also draw a connection here. Just to reiterate the numbers again, we have 44% of private school parents who say that their child has quarantined in the last month. And last month, that number was 41%. So we’ve got a general sense of what that might be. 22% of district school parents said that their child has had to quarantine in the past month. Last month, it was 24%. Again, we have a general category.

We also ask, and I can’t remember if we were planning on touching on this later, but I’ll jump on it now, the parents of children who are attending private schools are twice as likely to say that their child’s school is doing both online and in person, or at least were at the beginning of this semester. More than twice as likely compared to parents of kids who are in public school.

So I don’t know if my senses maybe are telling me, are there private schools out there who are more likely to just do a quarantine method because they are confident in their distance online options that they have built? I know that not all private schools have done that, but are there enough that would drive up this kind of rate? Does it say something about where private schools are located? There could be a few things going on there. But I would be interested to dive into if there’s a connection there. If you were choosing to do a quarantine type of method of containing COVID because you’re more confident and alternative approaches that you have could be a matter of staffing. As well, different private schools have different access to different depth charts when it comes to staffing. Could be a few things going on there. But I do find that disparity interesting.

Mike McShane: Also this month, we’ve been continuing to ask questions about participating in learning pods and in tutoring. And interestingly, we’ve seen increases in how much more money parents are saying that they would be willing to spend to participate in a learning pod or to participate in tutoring. In both cases, the pod number is up almost $70, to $448 per child per month. And the tutoring is up again almost $70, up to $381 per child per month. Again, particularly on the tutoring side, maybe not so much on the pod side, $448 per child per month, trying to organize a school on that could be challenging. There’d have to be some other way to get overhead covered for that to really work.

But especially on the tutoring side, man, 380 bucks a month, that’s a lot of money for tutoring. I don’t know how many folks are getting into the tutoring game now, but I feel like there are lots of college students or recent grads or frankly teachers on their free time that could be doing some tutoring. And I think, look, I have been bullish on the research for tutoring. Obviously, there’s a lot of caveats that you want it to be aligned to the curriculum, you have quality people doing it. But that kind of high dosage tutoring, it’s got a pretty strong research base for helping kids out, given the massive amounts of learning loss we’ve seen. It seems like a pretty positive thing and it seems like parents are willing to pay for it. So maybe this is something that could help rectify some of the things we’ve seen.

John Kristof: Yeah, definitely. Just as someone with an economics background, I see something like the willingness to pay for tutoring going up. And I see, oh, the people who are interested in tutoring are getting very interested in tutoring. And maybe that’s something that you expect as the school year goes on. We are solidly through the first semester at this point that parents can kind of have a sense of where their child is. And maybe after a long time of disruption, they came back and are seeing that as their child maybe is getting into a regular schedule, they can see that their child does need some help in some areas, and parents are willing to pay for it.

For whatever it’s worth, I do like drawing this out. We do a quarterly survey of teachers as well. Our most recent one came out in September and I’m blanking on the exact number, but we asked teachers if they would be willing to tutor students. And if so, what they would require to be paid in order for it to be worth their time. And it is about that level. It is about $380 per kid per month. So again-

Mike McShane: There’s an opportunity there.

John Kristof: My economics brain telling me there’s a market here.

Mike McShane: Supply and demand running into each other.

John Kristof: Got to figure out how to make those two lines on the supply and demand graph, we got to connect them. There’s interest-

Mike McShane: Just like in the textbooks. So we also asked this question, “How do you grade the following on their handling of matters in K12 education?” We asked both school parents and all adults, local school district, state legislature, state governor, and the Biden administration. One of the things that I’ve found fascinating was, so if we were to sort of rank them in who gets the highest GPA, school boards higher than… I think the state governor does a little bit better than state legislatures, but they’re very close to one another and the Biden administration coming in last. We see at the school board level, roughly twice as many people give their local school board an A than an F. It’s not exactly right. 15% gave their local school district an A while 9% gave them an F. Interestingly, the Biden administration is almost the exact reverse, 18% gave an A but 30% gave an F. And I think that’s one of the largest.

And most of the other things that you’ll see, and Morning Consult put together this great graph where you can see these various size bubbles based on what the scores were. The Biden administration is one where you really see this skew, that 30% of school parents give the Biden administration an F. When it’s all adults, it’s close to that, it’s 28%. There’s been a lot of conversation of education becoming a more potent issue in elections when you see something like that. And frankly, the numbers are kind of polarized where you see the school board and state legislatures, the big numbers are in the B, C range, you’ll imagine a bell curve roughly in the B-, C+ range. When it comes to the Biden administration, it’s very polarized. You see very few Cs and not even really that many Ds. But you have the A, B, A-, B+ hump of the curve and then that F hump of the curve as well. So both polarized, but also skewing towards the negative. That could definitely play in elections that are starting to take shape moving forward.

John Kristof: Yeah, definitely. This kind of runs along the lines of something that we talk about occasionally, which is that people do view education differently locally than they do on a state level than they do on a national level. And when you look at one of our favorite questions that we always put early in our blogs and reports, “How do you see the direction of K12 education in this country? Do you view it going in the right direction or is it off on the wrong track?” And consistently, people will say, “Nationally, it’s awful. It’s going in the wrong direction.” What I mean by that is they’re always most negative of about national, but people are always most positive about their local school area, their local school district.

So I guess that kind of is reflected here in the grades. But the polarization issue that you present I think is really important to bring about, because I also think it’s important maybe for legislators on a state level to see, people don’t view you as polarized like they view the national government’s polarized. They only view you in a polarized lens about to the same degree as like a local school district, which people are generally happier with. So maybe that’s a loose signal of trust, or at least a kind of perception that people seem to have of their state legislatures when it comes to education issues.

Mike McShane: Yeah. I stepped on my own transition because I want to say this is the first month we’ve done this. I could be wrong, but we’ve asked this question, “Now, thinking about your vote, what would you say are the top three issues on your mind when you can ask your vote for federal offices, state offices, and local offices? And we give them options like economic issues, healthcare issues, security, senior issues, education, energy, and women’s issues. And interestingly at the federal level, so it sort of plays into what you’re talking about here, John, on how this gets kind of operationalized, at the federal level comes in fifth of seven. Of the seven options we gave, it came in fifth. At the local level, it comes in tied for third. And at the state level, it comes in tied for third. And at the local level, it comes in third.

Economic issues and healthcare issues, which I think probably shouldn’t surprise us, dominate. Economics is pretty standard. About half of people put that in their top three, whether it’s federal, state or local. There was more variation on education. 21% of people at the federal level, 25 at the state, 29 in the local. So obviously the closer you get to kids, the more people care about it. It bumps up there. It’s tough to think, obviously, the economy right now, everyone’s talking about it, stake in it, Christmas happening, inflation, all of those things happening in healthcare, clearly amidst of global pandemic. But even before anything else shows up, education shows up next once you’re at the state and local level, which I found not necessarily surprising. It’s a huge budget item for states and an even bigger budget item for localities, but pairing together those past two things. So we might make a lot of, hey, that on the federal level, people are polarized about education, but they also care less about education just in general. At the state and local level where they are less polarized, they care more.

That seems to me to point to the opportunity to actually maybe solve some problems, to maybe get some things done, because we don’t see that same polarization. But as we’ve seen in both state and local elections and school board meetings and others, it’s very easy to start nationalizing things. And so I think the future remains uncertain on this, but these are interesting data points and will be interesting to sort of track in the future. I think as state and local elections start to rev up, as the 2022 elections start to rev up, we’ll see if education rises or false. Because there’s a lot of people making predictions right now that education for federal offices, like that congressional races are going to be determined on this and others, doesn’t seem to be the case in our polling right now that it’s that high of a priority. But it might bump up. I don’t know.

John Kristof: Yeah. I think that’s all very good stuff. It will be interesting to see how this changes or maybe what this would’ve looked like maybe a month ago. This survey was in the field early November, right around an election season. And that was very big in the news and yeah, on a federal level, it was less than half as important as economic issues, but was a solid third for a local matter. And it’ll also be interesting to see how this carries forward in different states as well. I say that because we’re also able to see like demographic breakdowns and cross tabs for different race or ethnicity groups or political affiliations or what kind of locale you live in.

The responses and rankings change a little bit. So for example, rural and small town areas kind of care about education on about the same on all three levels. School parents are more likely to care about education issues. Not as many percentage points more as adults as I would’ve expected, but more. And black respondents far in a way cared about education issues more than any the group that we broke down. On all three levels, 31% labeled it as a top three issue for federal, 34% for state and 35% for local. Republicans were actually the only group more likely to name education a top three issue on a federal level than they were on a state level.

And I think that’s worth paying attention to maybe over the next year, whereas Democrats are significantly more likely to care on a state and local level than they are federally based on our responses here. So different states have different kinds of localities and different kinds of people in them. So maybe we’ll see some and patterns of what kinds of states make education an issue in the long term, but also maybe different policy makers or people interested in politics listening to the podcast, reading our reports can see, “Hey, this looks like my state and it looks like there’s an opportunity right now to try to tackle an issue and get something done.”

Mike McShane: Well John, I can always count on you to dig into those cross tabs. As this is our last podcast for the year and it is the Christmas season, I want to say that I am very thankful for you, for all of the great work that you’ve done preparing for these podcasts, allowing me to rock up and start asking questions. And inevitably you have some answer that’s like, “Well, I looked at the data from three months ago.” Boy, I’m sure glad you did. We also have to give a shout out to Jen, even though she can’t be here. She’s been an awesome addition. All the guests that we’ve had on the podcast to talk about this year, we’re really grateful for them making the time.

And probably the number one MVP of this podcast, and unfortunately his voice is never heard, but evidence of his work is ubiquitous, is Jacob Vinson who produces this podcast. We’re thankful for him. We’re thankful for all the folks at EdChoice who support us and give us this platform. Paul DiPerna, who manages all of our polling stuff, our colleagues at Morning Consult who make these great graphs and make it very easy for even folks like John and I to understand, and for all of you. For all of you that are listening, hope you have a wonderful holiday season. You get a chance to rest and relax. As our polling has told us, it’s been a wild few years. So hopefully you’re able to spend some time with friends and family and have good cheer. And here’s to seeing you in the new year, where we’re going to continue breaking down these numbers, we’re going to continue fighting for school choice and onward and upward. Take care, everybody.