Ep. 387: Monthly Tracker – August 2023

September 12, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, we dive into our monthly poll results on education-related issues including public sentiment on the direction of K-12 education, what values parents want schools to teach their children, support for school choice, and more.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice, and this is our monthly installment of our Tracker Podcast. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, each month we partner with Morning Consult to poll a nationally representative sample of Americans. We oversample parents to get a really good idea of what they think about topics pertinent to the day. This most recent poll and the one that we’re going to be talking about today was in the field from August 10th to August 13th, 2023.

If we think about it, kind of right in the middle of back to school time. The last couple months we’ve been talking about has been taking place in the summer, which is interesting. Kids aren’t in school. Maybe that affects what parents think about, and this could be a similar one. Kids are going back to school. Both parents and non-parents are seeing school start back up. Kids are heading back in there. School buses are back on the roads. Early morning traffic is taking place. Maybe that’s going to alter what people will think about it.

I’m joined on the podcast today by Colyn Ritter, my colleague, who many of you will be familiar with from this podcast, and we have a special new member of the team joining the podcast today, Alli Aldis. Alli, welcome. She’s a new addition to the EdChoice research team. It was only a matter of time until she showed up on this podcast. Alli, welcome to the podcast. We’re really happy to have you on here today.

Alli Aldis: Great. Thank you. I’m really glad to be here with you guys.

Mike McShane: We’re going to kick it off today with our segment that we like to call Cleopatra’s Pizza Hut Most Surprising Number. Alli, you may already be familiar with this, but we’re going to use Alli as the stand-in for the audience in case those of you have maybe joined us since we explained this joke a few months ago. We called this the Cleopatra’s Pizza Hut Most Surprising Number because many people are surprised to know that Cleopatra actually lived closer to the building of the first Pizza Hut than of the building of the first pyramids or of the pyramids of Giza.

Surprising. I don’t know, Alli, if you were surprised by that information, but it’s a surprising number. We’re looking this month to what are the numbers that were most surprising for us? What did we see in our polls that didn’t end up the way that we thought? Colyn, why don’t you go first? What was your most surprising number this month?

Colyn Ritter: Thanks Mike. We asked a couple new questions this month and we discuss things like what are important teacher traits that parents are really keen to have for their children. We talked about what values parents want from their children’s schools. We talked about timing of when parents make decisions, but the one I’m going to talk about is the teacher traits questions. We asked, for the upcoming school year, to what extent is it important for your child’s classroom teachers to have the following traits?

The top three were patient, experience, and organized, with roughly four out of five parents desiring those three traits. Subject expert, we asked how important is it for the teacher to be a subject expert according to parents, and only 68%, two-thirds, it is a big portion of the parents that want that, but I was surprised I guess at how low it was on the pecking order. It was seventh behind things like enthusiastic, creative, empathetic. Parents wanted those traits more.

I’m sure if we were to dive into the cross tabs, there’s probably a higher percentage of parents of high school kids who want their teachers to be subject experts compared to parents of kindergarten teachers who just want teachers… They’re not teaching one subject. That was a bit surprising to me, and I’m curious too once we get the final cross tabs to dive into that just to see the breakdown. The other part of this that was surprising was that there were three traits at the end that really were towards the bottom of the barrel, only had less than a third of parents selecting them.

For example, only 32% of parents wanted their child’s teachers to be strict. I was actually surprised that that was so high. Strictness is a good question. It’s a style of some teachers, but I’m curious as to which type of parents are seeking out strict teachers. And then we also asked about the gender of teachers, so female and male. Only 22% of parents wanted their child’s teacher to be female and only 19% of parents wanted their child’s teacher to be male.

Again, there’s this massive drop off between things like patient, experience, organize, those are up near 80%, and then we get down to strict only 32% and gender around one in five parents actually want their child’s teacher to be male or female, just one of those. That was a really interesting one to me and it was surprising. I don’t know if this question will stick around, but it was a good one and looking forward to diving into the cross tabs with this one.

Mike McShane: Mine is actually kind of similar for this month. Another new question that we asked was we asked parents, we actually asked the general public as well, I’m going to talk about the parent responses, but about the values that they would like to see schools impart with their kids. We asked, for the upcoming school year, to what extent is it important that your child or children’s school emphasizes the following values? We actually gave a whole list.

I don’t know, there was 20 of them or something the parents could choose from and said whether they thought it was extremely important or very important, somewhat, not that important, or not at all important. What surprised me was not what ended up at the top, right. What did parents say? Number one was honesty. Number two is respect. Number three is responsibility. Number four is kindness. Number five is perseverance. I think these are all generally pretty unobjectionable things that people would want, but that’s what actually surprised me. Because when it comes to the extremely important, the one where people are the most convinced that this is what they want, honesty is 64% and then it drops down. Respect is 55%. Responsibility is 53%. Now, look, if you add “very” in there, you can add another 20 to 30% on there. You’re in the 70s. I guess what surprised me was I thought some of these numbers would be in the 90s. People saying between honesty being extremely or very important, I’m surprised that anyone would say anything else that it’s somewhat important. I’m just surprised.

Again, it drops off. When we think of something like excellence, only 40% said it was extremely important and 37 very. That’s like 77%, which is not nothing. I mean, I think that that’s important to realize and maybe that’s higher than some people would’ve otherwise expected. Things like ambition were up at that level too. But I think what was surprising was that I was expecting to see five, six, seven of these things at basically 90% of parents wanted.

It’s just another good reminder that we live in a big diverse country and people want different things out of schools and people have different priorities. It’s important to keep that in mind. Alli, what was the most surprising number for you?

Alli Aldis: One of the big new questions for the world of education as we’re starting school again this year I think is the role that artificial intelligence is going to play. A lot of teachers, students, and parents are grappling with these unanswered questions about how we can use this as a learning tool or how to combat things like plagiarism using artificial intelligence tools. I was interested to see our results that about 80% of adults have heard a lot or some about artificial intelligence, but most haven’t used it before. About 60% of adults haven’t used artificial intelligence before. 38% of school parents have, which I thought was interesting that there’s this great proportion of school parents who are having to contend with these ideas of the role that AI is going to play in the classroom and at home and the role of homework and things like that. We’re seeing a lot of people who are having to figure these questions out and interact with this technology at a greater proportion than we see other demographics engaging with AI.

Mike McShane: Yeah, absolutely. Those numbers stood out to me as well. Well, now, for our second segment, we’ll go in the opposite direction. We call this the Death and Taxes Least Surprising Number, that probably needs a little bit less explanation than the whole Cleopatra’s Pizza Hut thing, but these are numbers that did not surprise us this month. Colyn, what was your least surprising number?

Colyn Ritter: I’m going to go to the school switcher question, and I feel like we’ve talked about this a decent amount in the past. But just for those unfamiliar, we ask parents if their child has moved from one type of school to another. In the question, we try and take out the moving from grade school to middle school or middle school to high school, things that are going to happen regardless in the K12 education system. This is just parents who have switched their child from one school type to another beyond the grade school and middle to high school switch.
26% of parents say their child has changed school types. That is the number that we’ve seen. It’s up 1% from last month. That’s about roughly the same number we’re seeing every month when we ask the types of parents who are switching their children are the familiar ones. Private school parents are at 45%, special education parents are at 41%, and then parents of special needs children are at 39%. Those are roughly the same three.

But for me, the one that sticks out, and it’s not surprising, but to me it is very important to keep in mind the reasons these parents are switching their child from one school type to another. The top three reasons this month, as well as what we see in the previous months, we also asked this question in our Schooling in America annual survey national poll that we do that’s just a much bigger sample size and it covers a lot more different things. But we see the same three reasons.

The top three reasons are excessive stress or anxiety, bullying, and academic needs not being met. That’s 28%, 26%, and 26% respectively with those three. Those are the three most popular ones. To me, it hits at all three things to me when you ask someone why their child would feel the need to switch schools. For me, one is just physical and emotional safety and things like that. If you’re very stressed or anxious at school, that can be something that can lead you to seek out another school type. And then the physical, obviously bullying, if your physical safety is being threatened, that is for sure another reason. There are school choice programs like the Hope Scholarship in Florida given to families of students who have been bullied. Connecting it back to choice, because these people are leaving their school for one reason or another. And then lastly, obviously academic needs not being met. That one’s pretty self-explanatory. The school is not meeting your academic needs and that student and that family deserve options when it comes to that.

This question just really… I mean, it really is parallel to our mission, and it shows that there’s a lot of people out there who are switching schools and these are the most popular reasons. But to me, it also highlights and makes me think about how many students, how my families are also dealing with these three issues and who haven’t been afforded the means or the choices when it comes to being able to find another school that could help alleviate some of these issues.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Alli, what number did not surprise you this month?

Alli Aldis: Not to take the death and taxes too literally, but the general public and school parents continue to underestimate per student spending in public schools by quite a lot. In general, we see a average spending of about $14,000 per student in public schools across the country. Adults and parents both continue to estimate at about 5,000 per student. There’s a big discrepancy there, and we tend to see that across a lot of polls when we track this over time.

There’s a tendency to underestimate that figure. Both school parents and non-school parents both underestimate that figure. And I think that’s pretty standard. Like you said, this is one of those things we can count on is always the spending, the figures being a little bit of a constant in our lives.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Our poor colleague, Martin Lueken, who runs FREC, our Fiscal Research Center, this is the rock that like Sisyphus, he must roll up every day only for it to roll back down on him.

Colyn Ritter: Probably Marty says this at least offline.

Mike McShane: Yes. We had that great cartoon for John Kristof, which everyone should check out John Kristof’s paper, The Three Languages of School Choice. There was a great editorial style cartoon that was done for that. Maybe we need a Marty as Sisyphus cartoon to be commissioned as well. My number that was least surprising, and it’s more from thinking back to my days as a teacher, and I’m not saying that necessarily is a good thing that this didn’t surprise me and it’s something that were probably worth thinking about and discussing is the result of a new question we asked this month.

We asked parents about when they make the decision of where they’re going to enroll their child. We asked the question in two ways, which is what month of the year do you begin considering your child or children’s school enrollment for the next year? In what month do you and your spouse or partner make the decision of where your child is going to enroll for the next year? Now, it’ll be interesting, maybe folks that are listening, you’re driving in the car, you’re doing some yard work right now. There are 12 months obviously in the year. Maybe you can have in your own head which month you think, what was the most popular month that people had to either begin their decision or make their decision of where they’re going to school. Think of a month in your head where you think it’s most popular. We can all say it at once. The most popular month is three, two, one, July. July was the month in which it was most popular to make the decision of where your child is going to school.

Interestingly, the month that came in second place to the month that was most popular to begin considering where your child is going to go the next year and that was August. Now, it’s interesting, I think maybe the question is a little challenging, because I don’t know whether that means that their kids are enrolled in August this year and they’re thinking about next year because August your kid could be in school, depending on where you are in the country in early August. Maybe that they’re thinking about the next year and maybe when they say next year it’s the school that’s starting in two weeks.

It makes me think that they probably didn’t begin considering with two weeks to go, though that may be true. I was saying actually before we started recording back from my days as a teacher, it’s not uncommon, and those of you that have teacher friends or teachers in your family, they can probably verify this for you, that when you get your class role the few days before school starts, when you’re doing in-services and pre-meetings and whatever, it is clear that those numbers are in flux. That you may have some students who end up not showing up and are going to school somewhere else, or you have students that were not on that role sheet. Now, is it the 20 to 25% that answered that in these questions? Probably in some places closer to that. In most places, it’s probably not that high. We see some other months like May and June and September and things that are more likely to, but it’s a bell curve that centers on August and July of when these decisions are being made.

I think that’s interesting, especially if people really are waiting until August to make these decisions. I think that’s a rather compressed time period to make a very consequential decision. But in other cases, it could be that that’s just the end of a year of considering or any of things like that. Again, didn’t necessarily surprise me based on my experience of this flux of students that enroll versus actually show up. An interesting new question that we asked. I don’t know if that’s going to be one that’s going to stay in the rotation, but something I found to be interesting.

For our third and final segment, we have the question or our segment devoted to what data point, what finding from this month do we think matters most to parents or will matter most to parents? Alli, I’ll give you the first crack at this. Of the numbers that you looked at, what numbers do you think will matter or matters most to parents?

Alli Aldis: I think what’s going to matter most to parents is school safety. I think that it’s a very pressing issue and what we see is that half of school parents are concerned about a violent intruder entering their child’s school, which has held steady since July. Now that kids are actually back in the classroom, this is a very real ever present concern that parents have. The fact that half of our respondents are indicating that they have a concern about this makes it feel very, very real.

This is also held up across some of our other related questions where half of school parents feel that their child’s school handles violent behaviors very well, but that leaves half of those parents that don’t feel that their school is handling violent behaviors particularly well. We see similar figures for issues like guns, mental health and bullying, all of these things which can lead to serious concerns about child safety in schools.

Mike McShane: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was something that we found in our Schooling in America polling when it comes to decisions around school choice and others. What Colyn was speaking about earlier in some of the findings we see how big a role school safety plays in school choice and in just general opinions and attitudes about schooling. Yeah, I think that’s definitely a super important one. Colyn, what is your number that matters most to parents?

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, I’m going to piggyback off Alli because mine was very similar and I was going to use the figure she noted about half of parents being concerned about a violent intruder. But the one that stuck out to me is we asked parents why their child is enrolled in the school type that they are and to please select the top three most important reasons. Number one is location. That’s something we see a lot. 50% of parents say that their child is enrolled in their school type because of location. Do it that what you will. For district school parents, it’s a little bit higher. And then when we split out by private school, parents location is not in the top three, which again makes sense. But what’s interesting and what supports what Alli is saying is that safe environment for school parents generally is number two. That is something that is surprising in what parents should note. Safe environment is not typically number two. Number two is usually academic quality.

In years prior and the monthly tracker, that’s something we see, and in Schooling in America, something that we’ve all worked on. Academic quality is usually number one for a lot of the groups. Location is usually number one for public school parents, but academic quality is usually number one when you look at other types of parents like private, charter, things like that. But now safety is number two generally, and I think that is supported by the fact that, like Alli said, half of the parents are concerned about a violent shooter entering their school, which again is just the overall idea of that is hard to fathom. But when you look at the past year and some of the tragic events that have unfolded, it also makes sense, unfortunately.

It also makes sense when you’re looking at how well schools are addressing the following issues. Half of these parents don’t believe their schools are addressing things like guns or violent behaviors well. That’s pretty concerning. But then looking at safe environment, when we split it out, when we look at Schooling in America, again, not to harp on it too much, but charter school and homeschool, safe environment is number one.

And then when we split out here in the monthly tracker with district school and private school parents, private school parents, safe environment is number two, and that’s selected by 52% of parents. That’s more than half of parents are selecting a safe environment as the reason their child is enrolled in school. And then for district school parents, safe environment is number three, right on the tail of academic quality, which is 27%, and safe environment is 26%.

Prioritizing a safe environment is showing up in pretty much any way you split out, whether it’s overall, whether it’s looking at a certain type of parent when it comes to their school type. It’s happening and it’s on the minds of parents. We’re talking about whether states should enact school choice laws or whether choice is worth “the risk” when states are talking about it, some of the reasons that parents want it is simply to keep their child safe. I don’t know where this number’s going to go in the future.

Hopefully we have a year where none of the tragic events unfold and maybe we see this number go down, that would be fantastic. But this number is significant now and I think parents should note it. Lawmakers and people who oppose choice should also make note that this is just a very basic need when it comes to schools is they’re just keeping their children safe.

Mike McShane: Going in a slightly different direction for mine, and obviously all of those concerns are very serious and weigh heavily on parents’ minds, I want to highlight a number that I think matters to parents, but also might matter for young parents, might matter for perspective parents. We’ve asked this question of parents, when thinking about the future, please select which of these words best describes how you feel right now. We give them a set of paired oppositional words.

One is hopeful versus fearful. We have satisfied versus dissatisfied, whether you feel enthusiasm or whether you feel dread. In all of these things, hopeful, having a sense of purpose, being happy, being satisfied, optimistic, enthusiasm, feeling in control, experiencing enjoyment, in all of these cases, parents are more likely to say that they agree with that positive sentiment than its negative version. 65% of school parents say that they are hopeful. Only 12% say that they’re fearful. 56% of school parents say that they have a sense of purpose. Only 10% don’t have a purpose or feel that they don’t have a purpose or they are without purpose. The one that’s closest is feeling in control. But still, 47% of school parents say that they feel in control, while only 21% say that they feel overwhelmed. I think this is something I’ve probably harped on. Isn’t our finding show that people are happy being parents?

A lot of the narrative that I think comes out in the media or comes out in popular culture that parents, they feel like their lives are out of control, or they’re pessimistic, or they’re frustrated, or any of those things just doesn’t show up in our polling data. That overwhelmingly now… Look, there’s a healthy neutral in some of these. 47% of parents say they feel in control, 21% say that they feel overwhelmed, and 32% are in the middle. It’s not necessarily overwhelming. It’s not 90% of parents saying that they feel in control, but it’s tilted towards that.

Especially with things around hopefulness, parents are hopeful. And when you compare these numbers to the general population, in almost all of these cases, parents are more likely to say the positive than the negative, more likely to be hopeful, more likely to be happy, more likely to be satisfied. I think that’s a good message that needs to get out there, that contra what you might hear when you open up the newspaper or watch the news or see dramatizations of what parents’ life is like or see social media about parenthood or whatever, people are happy. People enjoy being parents. It gives them a sense of purpose. They feel much more in control of their lives than you otherwise might think. I think that’s a message that needs to get out there, and I’m glad that we can be a part of it.

Well, anyway, Colyn, Alli, great to chat with you as always. Thanks as always to Jacob and Eve, our wonderful podcast editors, and to all of you for listening. If you’d like to find out more, you can go to edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. That’s where our Tracker Podcast lives.

In the upper right-hand corner of that landing page, you can see our state profiles where we actually… Even though we do a nationally representative survey every month, so we’re not trying to get a representative survey of every state, because we ask so many people every month, over time we do get a substantial segment from all of the states across the country. We’ve been doing this for long enough. Once we get a critical mass in a state, we can actually disaggregate and look at those numbers. We’re constantly refreshing them as new people from those states are asked each month and the older data filters out.

If you’re curious what people in your individual state think, you can head there. Also, on that upper right-hand corner, we have a resource downloads where you can see the full PowerPoint presentation that Morning Consult puts together for us with all the great charts and graphs. You have our cross tabs, Colyn referenced those earlier, where you can look at all breakdowns. Each of these documents is like three, 400 pages long. Each of our question is broken down by I think 30, 40 different demographic groups, cutting across all sorts of things, income, race and ethnicity, politics, geographic location, all of those sorts of things. And then finally, you can see our actual questionnaire that we ask, the order of the questions, the skip logic, all of that stuff so you can see exactly what we did.

Head over to the website. Check it out. You can always go to www.edchoice.org for everything else. Thanks so much for listening, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next installment of EdChoice Chats.