Ep. 376: Monthly Tracker – June 2023

June 30, 2023

In this monthly tracker podcast, EdChoice team members discuss the new question added to the poll about a four day school week while also reflecting on the past school year.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and welcome to our monthly installment of our polling podcast. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, each month we partner with Morning Consult, a polling firm to poll a nationally representative sample of Americans. We over sample parents, obviously at EdChoice we care deeply about what parents think, so we make sure to get a nice robust sample of them. And our most recent poll that we’ll be talking about today, or at least using as a kind of jumping off point, was in the field from May 17th to May 19th, 2023. We surveyed 2,259 Americans, including 1,271 school parents. Given that this took place at the end of May, I think we really have an opportunity today to look back on this school year. In some ways, this was the first school year that people might say schools went back to normal after the pandemic. 

I did some digging around before this. I think other than in a few rare or isolated events, the basic school schedule calendar for the vast majority of schools in America went back to quote unquote “normal.” This year we didn’t see big closures throughout this school year. So we have an opportunity to at least get a peak at what the… I’m sort of now using even more buzzwords. But what these new normal looks like. What new normal parent opinion, what American opinion looks like. And we can look back on the school year and say, did anything change? Are opinions different at the end of the 2022/2023 school year that they were at the beginning? But before I begin, it is graduation season as it is at the end. And I was thinking back to, I think whenever you graduated from high school, there was the graduation songs and it’s like they would get dusted off every spring. 

You wouldn’t necessarily hear them that much through the rest of the year. And so I was thinking back on what were the graduation songs that I remember from going to graduations or graduating from things myself. And I’d be interested, I’m joined today by my colleagues as usual, John Kristoff and Colyn Ritter, who let’s just say graduated a couple of years after I did. What is it in the single digits? Is it in the double digits? No one knows. We’re not going to put that out there. But I’m willing to admit that they graduated sometime after me. And I’m trying to think of the three songs that stood out to me before this, were Semisonic “Closing Time”. This is like a mid-nineties jam. Hopefully some people who are listening are like, “Oh, I remember that playing at graduations.” Green Day’s, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, which I think came out in like 1997 or so, but was definitely still when I was graduating from high school years after that, to be clear, was definitely still a popular song. 

And then there was of course Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever)”. I don’t know why graduation songs, two of the three I thought of had parentheses in them. Which is someone you knew. I think that one came out in like 1999 and obviously had some shelf life after that. But I’m curious, Colyn or John, when you think back to your graduations, was there like a particular song that was played or there ones that you associate with either graduating yourself or attending graduations? I also probably should have prompted you before this, I probably should have said, Hey guys, I’m going to throw this question out to you. 

Colyn Ritter: No, it’s a good question. I was just googling what the “Friends Forever” because yeah, it was the Vitamin C “Friends Forever” Song, which is forever ingrained in my head. But we also had The Green Day one is the great one. We did not have that one. We had, it was surprisingly cool of our staff to play “K.I.D.S.” by Mac Miller, rest in peace. But that was a good one because he is also graduating in the time of that song. So, I need to go through the lyrics and make sure… I’m sure they got the clean version if it wasn’t clean already. But that was a good one. Way better than “Friends Forever”. 

Mike McShane: There we go. John, do you have any associations? 

John Kristof: I wish I had a good answer for you. But honestly the answer’s probably just every early 2010’s dance pop song that sounded the same as everything else that I was listening to throughout high school. So I don’t know. Just your Calvin Harris’ and Ella McBayo’s all those things. It’s probably just that stuff. 

Mike McShane: Wonderful. Well let’s look, I’ve got- 

John Kristof: Nothing remarkably on theme unfortunately. 

Mike McShane: Well good. Look, we were all able to take this little walk down memory lane together, those halcyon days. But okay, speaking of walking down memory lane, Colyn, I’ll probably throw it to you first. As we look at our polling and the polling that we’ve been doing throughout this school year, what sort of stood out to you? Is there anything that really to your mind, we think people are thinking much differently in May of 2023 than they were in August of 2022? Are the things that are mostly the same, maybe we’ll start with, is there something you see that’s really changed where some topic that either American opinion or parental opinion has changed in that time period? 

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, you brought up the new normal theme of this year. And I was looking back on our monthly tracker blog and report from August of 2022 when the school year started. And I noticed that there was a question that we asked for a long time over two years. We asked how comfortable parents would be letting their children attend school in person, which feels like forever ago that was even debated. The last we asked the question, it left off at 93%. So parents were very comfortable at that point sending their kids to school in person. But I think a theme, while that has dissipated, we no longer ask that question obviously. And the sentiment is not really in question of whether parents want their kids to attend school. But I think one thing that has stuck around is the question of a hybrid school week. 

So we still asked the question, we asked it in the beginning of 2021, but we asked; What would be your preferred weekly schedule and location between schooling at home with a parent teacher tutor or outside the home and the traditional classroom setting? And what we’ve seen from last year is sort of parents switching back and forth between the majority, believing they want schooling to be completely outside the home five days a week, traditional. And then there’s also a good portion, sometimes over 50% of parents who want one to four days at home, their children to learn at home at least one day a week. So that sentiment has remained, and I don’t want to get too ahead, I want to hear what you guys have learned or have thought over the course of the school year as well. But we did ask parents a new question in this report about the prospect of a four-day school week. 

We really narrowed it down to would you move from a five-day to a four-day school week? And I thought the results were pretty surprising. So I don’t want to get too ahead. But just the idea of covid questions, getting further back in the rear-view mirror starting to disappear in some cases, like the question about how comfortable you are sending your kid to school. But there are some principles and things that we learned and we observed over learning in COVID that we’ve kept and parents still are relatively supportive of the idea and especially when it comes to a hybrid school schedule. So that was an interesting result. But I’d really like to hear what you guys have to say about this because I think it’s a great question. 

Mike McShane: Yeah. John, what stood out to you? 

John Kristof: Something very slight stood out to me as people who keep tabs on our tracker are familiar with near the beginning of every report that we do, is our question about how people feel like things in K–12 education are going on a local, state and national level. There is a lot of stability here. Generally, there are occasional few percentage points, peaks and valleys and things like that. But in taking a high level view of the charts that we have made for all adults who respond to this question, and school parents specifically who answer this question. Over time, I think you see a hint of a trend of greater optimism over time from parents and less optimism over time from adults as a whole. It is slight. We’re talking basically adults say, how do you feel K–12 education is going in the nation as a whole? It’s essentially a movement from low thirties in early fall 2022 to now low to mid-twenties in the spring of ’23. And if you look at parents, there’s less of a difference when it comes to nationally, but in the local school district, it’s gone from mid-fifties to high-fifties. 

These are not overwhelming swings, but I think it is interesting. You can just tell visually that despite all the peaks and valleys from one month to another, of a couple percentage points, it feels like parents and the population as a whole might be slightly moving in different directions as far as optimism goes. 

Now, as a reminder, school parents are always more optimistic than the public as a whole. Just as an example, this month that we surveyed, when it comes to the local school district, 59% of parents feel like K-12 education is going in the right direction, which is, it’s about as high as it’s been since two summers ago, compared to adults as a whole who were 36% feel like their school district is moving in the right direction. 

So a difference of 23 percentage points just there, and that’s a bit of a jump from last month, but generally over the last few months, as low as it’s been in three semesters, very slight differences. Parents always have been more optimistic than the public as a whole. A way that I like to phrase it is it seems that the more proximate someone is to a schooling situation, the more optimistic they are, which could be because of something that they’re seeing that makes them excited, but then it also could just be the classic poli sci effect of, I hate Congress, but I like my congressman. Something that’s local to you you like more. 

So the least in touch with the situation you could be with this question is, the population as a whole, which includes non-parents just considering the nation as a whole. All but one school district is their school district, so they’re least optimistic. Only 23% are optimistic there. And the closest you could be is a parent talking about their local school district, and that is the most optimistic at 59% this month. 

Anyway, that’s just a recap. Parents have been optimistic already, and I’ll just be interested to see if this continues over time. I don’t know if this is in response to particular political events or if it’s a different perspective on schooling in a post COVID world, where parents and the general population split. 

Again, it is a handful of percentage points. I would say maybe a five percentage point swing over the course of time, depending on what specific month you choose to start and end it. But we’ve done this over enough months, and we survey thousands of people every month. And I think that means something and it’s at least worth keeping an eye on. 

Mike McShane: It’s funny, my take is kind of a variation on yours. And in some way, I’m going to cheat on the very question that I asked, of what’s different from August of ’22 to May of ’23. 

I want to stretch out the time window just slightly, because one of the things that really stood out to me, John, obviously you talking about optimism. We ask a similar question to parents, where we say, “How do you feel your child or children are progressing on the following this school year?” You ask academic learning, emotional development and wellbeing, or social development and wellbeing. 

And one of the things that really struck me, now that we have a school year’s worth of data, was just how big the jump last summer was. So if you look at our numbers today, so using example of something like academic learning, what percentage of parents said that their child was progressing very well with respect to academic learning? At this time last year it was in the low thirties, probably right around 31-32%. 

We just asked that it was 52%, so we’re up 20 points in one calendar year. But in some ways that’s deceptive, because it wasn’t just a steady uptick. It was at 51% in June of ’22. So it was like, over the course of the summer. Or I guess I should say the Nadir was actually in April. I’m trying to see if my lines, I have an odd angle on this, so I think my lines might be slightly off. 

But roughly around this time period, but it was over the course of last summer. The numbers peak in July. They settled a bit down in August, but how big of a difference, I think really people last summer saw the pandemic is behind us, or at least by and large is. Schools are going to go back to normal, and I think, John, the same thing, this optimism took over. Okay, things are going to be okay, things are going to happen. 

So I’m fascinated. I don’t know if over the course of this summer we’re going to see changes, where people keep relatively ossified views throughout the course of the school year, in summertime when their children aren’t in school and they have a space to step back. People’s opinions start to change. 

But I don’t know, that’s one that really stood out to me, not necessarily looking back over the last academic year, but certainly over the last calendar year. 

Now Colyn, you referenced one of our new questions about the four-day school week. Could you maybe explain that question or the related questions that we did? And then both offer your thoughts. I’d be interested, because you’re right, we have been asking this question for a long time, about a hybrid schedule, where we’ve given parents different options, one day a week, two days a week. But there is this more specific thing that school districts are doing. And again, as someone who’s written about hybrid schools, I don’t know exactly how to classify it, because it’s not really designed to be a hybrid schedule. It’s really designed to just be four days in school and then the three-day weekend. 

And the reasons why people are doing it. So many other, like the hybrid schools that I’ve written about, are doing this for very specific pedagogical reasons. They’re choosing the days that they’re taking off to balance in school and out of school. Whereas it seems like a lot of these have been around staffing issues, or finances, or other things that escape good sense, it seems like at times. But anyway, so Colyn, I’d be interested. What was the sort of question, what did we find, and what do you think about it? 

Colyn Ritter: Sure, yeah, you did a really good job setting that up. Yeah, so we asked for the first time, like Mike said, we’ve kind of been hinting at it, but we really got direct here and we asked, “Do you support or oppose having your child’s school move towards four-day weeks, replacing the traditional five-day week?” 

We asked that to both parents and non-parents, so getting a good sense of if there’s a distinction there, or what the varying views might be. But parents were 61% supportive, whether it’s strongly supporting or somewhat supporting, but 61% of parents supported having their child’s school move towards a four-day week, replacing the traditional five-week schedule. 

Non-parents on the other hand, were only 43% supportive in terms of total support when it comes to this. I thought that was interesting. Non-parents were also much more likely, 10 percentage points more likely to say that they oppose it. 

So there were also a decent amount, which is expected, of non-parents saying they don’t know or have no opinion. But 37% of non-parents said they oppose this idea compared to 27% of parents. We also asked some follow-up questions about this. We asked one just to school parents about, do you think your child’s school should offer a choice between a four-day school week and a five-day school week? I thought that was another interesting question, just some of the top line results there. 

Exactly 50% of parents said that they would like a choice, compared to a third of parents, 33%, saying no. And then another 16% saying they don’t know. Mike brought up a really good point about what the reasons would be for switching to a four-day school week, like what the benefits would be. We did not ask what excited parents about the idea or why they would want that choice, which I think could be interesting as well. 

Instead, we asked, to what extent would you be concerned about the following if schools decided to offer classroom teaching four days a week? So it’s not saying that these schools would change their schedule, but at least offer the choice. And there weren’t any main concerns that really led the pack or were that overwhelming among parents. There was a bunch that got good amount of support, in that nearly over 40% of parents were, for example, concerned about their child not being prepared for the next grade level, their child losing interest in going to school regularly, or losing interest in learning. 

I thought it was interesting though, and shout out to Chantal and our comms team. She always has really great thoughts and takes about these reports. And she brought up a good point. She said her first thought was about childcare, how parents would find a place for their child within that school week if they were to switch to a four day. And only 30% of parents were worried about childcare arrangements, most of the concerns, at least the higher level concerns were referencing the child and their losing structure, losing routine, just like losing interest in learning in general, having less time to learn.  

Pretty much a lot of academic concerns when it comes to what parents are worried about with a potential four-day school week. But I guess I was a little bit surprised that 60% of parents would support having their child’s school replace the traditional five-day school week with a four-day school week. My guess would’ve been somewhere around where non-parents are around 40%, just because I do feel like that is a relatively dramatic change. I mean four days a week, parents had shown over the course of our polling when asking about hybrid weeks that they would be open to the idea. I just thought 60% was a little bit surprising. I’m curious what you guys think about this? I’m curious if we’re going to continue to ask it if that opinion of parents will change over the summer, because I think parents now are kind of reflecting on last school year versus if we were to ask them in July or August and they’re thinking, “Oh, if this were to happen in the next couple weeks, in the next couple months.” Maybe their opinions would change. But I think it’s a really good question nonetheless. 

Mike McShane: Yeah. What did you think about it, John? 

John Kristof: I think it’s a fascinating question. Ever since COVID happened and a lot of people were spending more time at home, students were spending more time at home. This idea of hybrid working and hybrid schooling started entering the public consciousness. It seems almost inevitable that we would get here at some point. I find it, I won’t rehash what Colyn said about the data, so I’ll just try to provide more context so listeners can kind of figure out how they want to think about this. Depending on where you are in the country, this is a very serious question that a lot of districts are facing. This is not a hypothetical in a lot of cases. I know Mike and Colyn both have connections to Missouri in some ways. I have learned that Missouri has gone from no four-day school weeks a couple decades ago to a quarter of Missouri school districts are using a four-day school week right now. 

Obviously, that is a huge jump. I don’t have the data on all the states to know exactly how that compares, but something that is interesting about Missouri, there’s a lot of small school districts, a lot of rural school districts in Missouri as well. This is a question that is particularly relevant for rural districts and based on the research that I’ve seen about four-day school weeks, they are generally implemented by school districts as like a cost-cutting kind of measure with side effect benefits of greater teacher retention, to some degree, greater teacher recruitment, teacher satisfaction, which of course would then lead to retention, and greater parent satisfaction. 

Generally, it seems that parents are happier, are happy with the four-day school week once they’re implemented, as is staff. That matches along with what we see in our survey where parents anticipate that they would like a four-day school week with a moderate majority saying that they would oppose it, and especially so if you take out the 11% who say that they don’t know or have no opinion. 

Now, of course the dilemma is there’s also some people in the research community who are finding some evidence that this has some impact on test score effects. And this just leads back to what every education reform question comes back to, which is what is education for? If you’re going to decide what is worth the effort or the drawbacks, some people are seeing this research as kind of like this conclusive evidence that the shift to four-day school week is a bad thing. Obviously, there are huge benefits to academic gains and test score gains may signal something. There’s some research that’s a little mixed as to what all higher test score means and whether they’re proxy for actual learning and preparation for growth and income down the road. Anyway, that’s its own discussion, but especially considering how many other things parents seem to value in schools and schooling decisions based on our surveys, there’s character development that is also highly valued. Civic growth, that’s highly valued. Socialization that’s highly valued. When parents are choosing a school, safety is always high up on that list. Not all of that is affected by the four-day school week schedule, but just to give you an idea that people are considering more than just test score gains when they’re making an education reform decision. 

So all that has to be taken into account. It seems that with as stuck as, and maybe stuck isn’t the right term, but nonresponsive that states and districts and teacher preparation is, clearly schools needs are not being met. Parents’ needs are not necessarily being met and there’s a desire for something else. We’ve been talking for a long time about the desire for a hybrid schooling schedule, where we’ve asked a question since the pandemic thinking long term after the pandemic, how many days a week do you want your kids spending outside of the home to do education versus in the home for education? 

And it’s taken all into account. Parents are just as likely to say that they would prefer one to four days of schooling happening at home as they’re to say they want all five days out of the home. So 40% to 45% of parents say that one to four days spent at home would be their preferred system. So there is a taste for this. There is a desire for this, there’s an interest for this. It seems that school districts are feeling some kind of pressure or a need to move this direction, especially if you know they’re in a rural area or otherwise facing certain kinds of costs. There’s also a recognition that parents recognize that there could be academic trade-offs, right? That category of concerns is the highest level of concern. The academic concerns, outpace concerns about childcare and things like that. Although that’s there, and despite the recognition of that, parents still prefer this idea of a four-day school week. And that’s because education is for lots of things. 

It’s not a very satisfying answer or analysis, I suppose, but that’s because education does so much. Schools do so much. There’s a lot that’s taken into account. It’s a bit messy. And I think this is just really… This and all of the questions that we have about academic priorities and preferences of school schedules and stuff like that, all highlight that. 

Mike McShane: Yeah. One of the things that stood out to me was that question that Colyn mentioned how parents want a choice. Do you think your school should offer a choice between a four-day week and a five-day week? Like 50% said yes, and only 33% said no. And I think that when it comes back to lots of these alternative education models or others, if you’ve been listening to this podcast, the various people, not just the polling podcast, but the various other people that we interview, obviously, I think all of us are quite bullish on new educational models, whether we’re talking about schools that are playing around with the schedule or the calendar, or their size, big schools, micro schools, small schools, whatever. 

But so central to all of that is the idea of choice that the families are choosing that particular model that are saying, “Yes, there are different educational models out there and we are trying to find the one that works best for us.” 

And the same is true on the teacher side, that there are lots of different educational models are out there, and we’re trying to find the one that works best for us. What worries me a bit with some of this conversation about four-day school weeks is that it isn’t really a choice. It’s like an entire school district says, “Okay, we’re just doing this now.” And some of the arguments that I’ve seen, personally, I have found less than convincing. I mean, it seems like in a lot of these cases, you know you have school districts that I’d have to find the source on this one, but I remember reading about school districts saying, “We have this massive teacher shortage and that’s why we have to do it.” And then someone went digging and found, “Well, actually you don’t have any advertised positions open. It seemed like you filled every one, so I don’t know if you really have a shortage that’s taking place there.” 

And then also, just a bit of context, most hybrid schools purposefully have fewer instructional hours in the classroom, trusting that instruction will take place at home, outside of it. It seems like in many cases, these four days, school weeks are four longer school days. And then one, again, a sort of day off. And I think part of the concerns that people have, both on the teacher’s side and on the student side, very, very long school days and in some cases very, very long school days for very young children, just to have one day off is definitely a trade-off that people are going to have to make. 

But look, this was all super interesting. Maybe one last lightning round. Is there anything else, Colyn or John this month that stood out to you? Just a sort of quick hit that you were like, either I wasn’t expecting that or I saw that, or just someone that might give a casual perusal of the results that you think it would stand out to them? Maybe Colyn, I’ll throw it to you first. 

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, so John brought up one of the questions that we ask and we ask what is the purpose of education? And we ask it. And obviously this is a question that touches and it is woven into a lot of the other questions that we ask or at least has an impact on it. But one of the trends that I’ve seen, I thought about how this could have fit for the first question of what changed from the beginning of this school year to now. And it comes from parents and what they believe is the purpose of high school. So ninth through 12th grade, and one thing that we’ve seen at the beginning of the school year and previously, and still most of the way through the school year actually, is that core academic subjects, according to school parents, is usually one of the top priorities. They believe that the main purpose of education in high school core academic subjects are extremely important. 

It’s typically hovered around 50%, 60%, anywhere in between there. It is usually right below skills for future employment. And one thing that I noticed, and this is reaching back a little bit, but the teens survey we did recently, I noticed that core academic subjects for teens was one of the least important. And obviously, since they’re teenagers and the age range was 13 to 18, so we’re mostly talking to high schoolers here. So only a third of high schoolers thought core academic subjects were extremely important, or at least when they’re talking about how important it is for them to learn these things at school. Skills for future employment, when we’ve asked teens is always at the top of the list. So parents and teens are aligned there. The distinction comes when we’re talking about core academic subjects and what we saw from parents at the beginning of the year was, again, core academic subjects being in the majority of parents thinking it’s incredibly important, extremely important to learn at school. 

But what I noticed in this wave in the May survey of parents is that core academic subjects actually dropped to 43% and it became the fourth most important. When we asked about the main purpose of education, it dropped a fourth, which was surprising to me in the fact that the teens and the parents are getting closer to alignment when it comes to that. And skills for future employment remained at the top. But I just thought that was interesting and I’d be curious to see if that continues to level out or if it bounces. I mean, it could just bounce back up to the top or towards the top next month. But I think one of the things I always look at when we’re talking about teen surveys or the gen pop parent surveys, the disconnect between the two groups, the teens and the parents. 

And there are a lot of ways they aren’t connected and they disagree on a lot of things, but there are some things that they do agree on. And I think when talking about the purpose of education, how important it is to learn each of these categories, I think the closer we can get to parents understanding what teens want and teens understanding what parents view education to be, I think that could be key. And I’d really love to see, one day I will look at one of these reports and the teens report will match I identically to what the parents will and I will throw my arms up and celebrate. But maybe I’m just in fantasy land. But it was good to see because the core academic subjects one to me is kind of a lightning rod where I don’t know if people listened to the one we had with Patrick McGrath discussing the teen survey, but I thought his perspective was really interesting on what he learned in high school and compared to what he wanted to spend time learning on in high school. 

And I think, I mean, that can change an entire year for a student if they believe what they’re learning is what they want to learn and they feel good about that. And if the parents can be closer aligned to what the teens are thinking, I think that can only be a benefit to everyone. So that was interesting to see. 

Mike McShane: John. 

John Kristof: I’ll just point out ESA questions support very stable over time. Among parents specifically in this month, 77% support, 9% oppose despite maybe because of all the political talk that ESAs have been given that they haven’t quite been given, at least to this extent in previous years. Given all the legislation that’s happened with ESAs support remains very high. This is the year of universal choice. The number of universal ESAs have skyrocketed this year, and it’s going to be very fun to see where that goes in future years. Support remains very high despite slash because of all the talk about it in the public square that it hasn’t seen before, people like ESAs. 

Mike McShane: Well, John, Colyn, a pleasure as always. I’d also like to thank our podcast producer Jacob Vinson for putting this all together for us. As usual, you can check out the results of our polls so you can see the cross tabs, where you can look at all the different demographic groups and also the full survey that we administer at edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. Thank you so much for listening and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.