Ep. 390: Surveying Teens

September 28, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane talks with Colyn Ritter and John Kristof to dive into our most recent survey of American teens where we tackled such questions as “How can school leaders and teachers maneuver the emergence of modern technology within the classroom?” and “What can be done to resolve mental health and absenteeism?”

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice, and you are tuning in to a special edition of our polling podcast. Many of you join us every month as we detail and discuss the findings of our monthly tracker poll, which we do in conjunction with Morning Consult, where we pull a nationally representative sample of Americans and American parents to get their ideas about K-12 education and all of the issues and questions related to that. We also periodically poll special populations. I think the most recent one you may have heard on one of these podcasts was a teacher poll that we did earlier in the spring where we polled a nationally representative sample of teachers, asked them questions about K-12 education, school choice technology, all of that interesting stuff. But this is our, I was just informed, seventh teen poll.

So, we have since the fall of 2020, seven different times polled a nationally representative sample of American teenagers. So, those are teens aged 13 to 18. This most recent poll was in the field from August 18th to August 27th. So, we imagine most, if not all of these students, are right back in school or just about to go back to school. And we had a whole set of questions, some that we’ve asked before, so we can have some interesting sort of comparisons. If you think about that early poll, it’s coming in at the end of 2020. Coronavirus is still obviously at top of mind, not sure if schools are going to start back up again or what form they’re going to take. Lots of disruptions, all of that’s happening.

And then all of these polls since then where we’ve been able to track what teenagers are thinking as they emerge from the pandemic. I’m joined as always, or as usual, by my two fantastic colleagues, John Kristof and Colyn Ritter. Colyn wrote a fantastic blog for the EdChoice website, which you can check out where he detailed some of the key findings. So, I think it probably makes sense, Colyn, for you to kick it off. What were some things that stood out to you in this, our seventh teen poll?

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, thanks, Mike. This was a really good one because we had a couple new questions that came from a couple of different sources and the teens, like Mike said, this is our seventh teen survey, so we only do them twice a year, and we get a lot of good feedback and a lot of questions from internally, external people as well. But two of the questions that I really want to get your takes on and questions that immediately set out to me and the findings were ones about mental health, and we also asked one about absenteeism. So, these are both new questions.

So, we don’t have any data to fall back on or look at, but it was really interesting to see where they stood. So, I’ll start with the mental health question because this was one that I got asked about and we actually ended up putting it in the survey because of one of our excellent partners at Stand Together wanted to ask us this question. And I really enjoyed the findings. I thought it was really interesting. So, the first question was, to your knowledge, does your school currently offer any of the following resources to students who need it? And the four options were college and career services, tutoring in school or after school hours, mental health services, and then online classes. So, when I first saw the four options, I thought college and career guidance counseling like that felt to me as though it would be one that is very highly selected.

And it was over two thirds of the teens said that they had college and career guidance services in their school. Two thirds of teens said they have tutoring in school or after school. So, I think that’s about right. I think that’s about where I expected it to be. But then mental health services was 57%, so more than half, nearly three out of five teens said that they do have mental health services in their school and available to students who need it. And then less than half, 46% of teens said online class options. So, that’s one half of the question. I think that’s really good baseline knowledge. But then the second half is, would you like for your school to offer the following resources to students who need or want it? And this was only asked to students who selected no to the first question. So, keep in mind two thirds of those teens said that they do have the college and career services and tutoring after school, and then 57% have mental health, 46% have online classes.

So, of the teens have said no, 65% of the teens have said no, they don’t have mental health services so that they would like their school to offer. And that follows up what we’ve seen in other polls. So, there was a poll from Ipsos and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It was around two thirds of teens said that they think schools should teach about what mental health is and how to find it, where to seek treatment, things like that. So, that’s about what I expected, and that’s where we landed in this survey as well. There is a decent sized drop off from the next options. Only half of the teens who didn’t have college career guidance services wanted it. Half wanted online class options, which I think was interesting. And there’s another question we asked in our survey about what type of school schedule, whether it’s in-home or at school, where they’d like to receive their classes.

And I think there’s an interesting correlation there. So, 50% of teens do want some online class options. That’s probably hidden under the mental health services impact of this question, but I thought that was an interesting note. And then only 44% wanted tutoring. So, all that to say, more than half of teens are getting mental health services at their school or not getting it, but they have it at their school if they need it. And then the majority who don’t have it want it. So, I think that is something to take away from this question.

We asked for the first time about absenteeism, and the first question we asked, we asked two questions to teens about this. The first one was thinking about last school year, how many whole days of school did you miss and were absent from school? And then on the second half of the question, it was thinking about last school year, on average, how many whole days would you say your closest friends and classmates were absent from school? So, we’re getting a little bit of a double-sided view here from how they felt they were in the last school year, but then also comparing them to their closest friends and classmates. And the results were very interesting. Mike or John, I’ll kick it to one of you guys.

Mike McShane: Yeah, I was going to say, the thing that stood out to me was this idea of 19% of students saying of themselves that they missed more than 15 days of school last year. I think there is always that clever wording of thinking about other students. We would tend to think people would probably underestimate. They’d say they’re going to school more than they actually did. And if that’s the case, we got real problems because 19% saying that they missed more than 15 days. And then when they are talking about their friends and classmates, 15%. I mean, generally speaking, the definition of chronic absenteeism, which I think is pretty clearly correlated with a host of negative outcomes, people generally set that around 10% of days, once you missed 10% of days, you’re chronically absent. And in 180-day school year, we’re talking 18. So, we’re saying at least self-reported something like one in five students is right on the edge of or going over being chronically absent.

And again, I mean, just thinking about there’s not that many weeks in school here. There’s not anybody who’s taught, if you have a lot of material to get through, you’re like, whoa, actually, there aren’t as many days as I would’ve thought. And so that’s just devastating seeing kids that are out of school that much, seeing it from the student’s perspective that they’re just missing so much. Seeing it from the school’s perspective of how difficult it is to organize that and administer a school in which that many kids are absent. Seeing it from a parent’s perspective, part of this is obviously a curiosity of why were they absent? Did this have to do with the coronavirus and the sort of quarantining that was done? Was it due to other things? Was it due to, as Colyn you brought up earlier, students saying that they’re having issues with their mental health?

Is that what’s driving it? Is it physical health? Is it mental health? What’s happening here? And I think there’s a good opportunity for us to do some follow-up research, but especially looking at that tail. And the only thing I’ll tack onto the end of that was the other end of the spectrum where we see 44% of students saying that they missed between zero and five days and saying of their peers, it was like 27% missing zero to five days. You just see running the risk of continuing to exacerbate some of these trends that we’ve been seeing in the data where from recent NAEP scores and others, how this sort of bottom performing, depending on what you’re looking at, 5%, 10% of students is just being left behind and other students are pulling away from that.

And at a basic level, before we get to anything else, just being in school, if 10% or 20% of students are chronically absent, that just sets them so far behind. And when you have this other, almost half of students are missing almost no time at all. It’s like, oh boy, that’s a recipe for bifurcation there. I don’t know, John, I’d be interested in your response either to this one or to the previous data that Colyn brought up.

John Kristof: Yeah, this is a very interesting problem for a lot of reasons. And in part because one, this shows the value of us doing this survey. So, for a little bit of maybe context, if you’re not familiar with the chronic absenteeism topic here, obviously COVID wrecked the schooling schedules of countless kids across the country, but between anecdotes of what teachers are reporting, between what schools are reporting in surveys and then state departments of education, what they are putting forth in their reports to the federal US Department of Education, there is a growing amount of evidence that the percentage of students who are chronically absent, which is, as Mike said, missing more than 10% of the school days throughout the year has grown. And the growth based on this data. When you’re asking the schools or when the US Department of Education asks the schools or what the states report after they ask the schools compiled by the US Department of Education.

Do you understand what I’m saying? It’ll vary by states, and I would say loosely, if you’re looking at a state with a lot of rural population, you’ll see a lot of chronic absenteeism. But just as an example, I’m looking at a graphic that AP News prepared based on this data now. In New Mexico in 2018 to 2019, 18% of students supposedly were chronically absent. And then in ’21 to ’22, 40% were, and again, this is all self-reported based on schools and things like that. So, we’re reliant on some things there. As Mike said, it’s very interesting to compare what teens are saying they are doing compared to these national trends that we’re seeing from other sources. And we usually would expect when there’s a social stigma against missing school, we might expect people to, if anything understate how often they’re missing school, they might be slightly less likely, if anything, to not put themselves into the most extreme category for the fact that one out of five teens identified themselves essentially as being just 15 days would be just about chronically absent for 180-day school year.

It’s quite alarming. Chronic absenteeism does spike in high school, the national trend in chronic absenteeism. Again, according to the same thing, just as a reference point, eight years ago, 2015, 2016, chronic absenteeism was like 20, 21%. And so teenagers are identifying themselves as about that trend. So, again, there’s some evidence that they might still be underestimating or they might still be understating how much school that they’re missing compared to these other resources that we have, but it’s also very possible that they’re not understanding it by that much. And as a researcher who does polling stuff, I think that’s also very interesting to know that this could be somewhat reliable information. This is something that we can ask teenagers about and they’re not going to be super coy about it. So, there’s a lot of different interesting factors about that. Obviously people will have different perspectives on how extreme of a problem this is, but if a teenager, if a high schooler is missing 10% of days of school, it’s a huge indicator that they will then drop out of school.

And then there’s statistics about the likelihood of employment and lifetime earnings and likelihood of criminal activity if a kid drops out of high school. So, a lot of people have interest in making sure kids are continuing to go to school. And then anecdotally, from a lot of teachers, teachers who I know, a lot of their students who are struggling the most, not all of them, but many of them, the biggest issue is when they’re pulled out for individualized help and things like that. The main thing for many of these students is if you just show up more, you will be fine, because you are a smart person, you are capable of learning, and if you came to school more, you would be on track.

Now obviously, there’s a lot of social conditions that make kids more or less likely to go to school that may or may not be in their power. And in high school specifically, those might differ from those in elementary school, of course. But I think that’s a broad overview that adds some context to I think just how important and how insightful I think this chronic absenteeism question that we asked is.

Mike McShane: Yes. So, now I have a question for you two youths, obviously neither of you are teenagers, but you’re a heck of a lot closer to it than I am. So, one of the questions that we asked this month, and something that we’ve asked before is from what sources do you primarily get your information about current events from? And as usual, social media platforms win. It’s down a bit in this administration. So, before it was 71% of teens saying that was their primary source down to 64% in August of 2023, family members is next and very closely tied to friends and peers.

But then a pretty substantial drop off to TV news, which is in the 20s, teachers, which is in the 20s to 30s, and then podcasts, sorry, being on a podcast doing this is rich irony, but that’s only like five to 6%. So, here’s the thing, as the resident old, I think in seeing that data I’m supposed to [inaudible] this is the downfall of everything, but then I think of that’s sort of how every old has spoken about new technology. I imagine people were shuffling their ill-fitting shoes when the book was introduced and when the television came out, they were, I don’t know, doing whatever unpleasant things they did then. So, what do you all think about that? Is this a worrying trend when you see that? We see, oh wow, teenagers, it seems their main thing is social media. Do you look at that with horror? Do you look at that and say, yeah, this is just an evolving ecosystem and this is what the world looks like now? So, to fumfer or not to fumfer, that is the question. What do y’all think?

Colyn Ritter: I think it’s probably too soon to say anything definitive about just, I mean, there was a 7% drop from teens relying on social media. So, I mean that’s not nothing from last fall to this fall. I want to check March and see, but I think it dropped a little bit. And so I think it’s probably just on the decline. And I think it’s also worth talking about some of the data from another similar question. Obviously it’s not about current events, but this is something perhaps on the positive side if you want to go the fumfering route of saying like, oh, teens are too online. They’re on their phones too much, spending less time with family, friends, things like that. We asked another question that says right now, which of the following do you currently use to help you with your schoolwork? And we have a nice chart that shows over the last four months, over the last four installments.

So, that goes back all the way to spring of 2022 and not social media, but internet search engines were the number one by far. In March ’22 they were 64%. So, nearly two thirds of teenagers are using the internet, Google, to help them with their schoolwork. Since then, flash forward to today, that percentage is down to 48%, so less than half of teens are now relying on the internet to help them with their schoolwork. And where have those teens gone? Well, one of the biggest risers, there’s little rises, and now I’m looking at it, there’s been marginal increases around a couple of the other categories, but the biggest one has been family members. So, in March it was 33% of teens use their family members to help them with their schoolwork. Now it’s up to 45%, so only three percentage off internet search engines.

I mean they’re on trend to overtake them and become the number one source for help on schoolwork. Again, this is not exactly the question you asked, but I do think it’s adjacent in the sense that maybe teens are getting a little bit less online when it comes to information. Now I think it’s obviously different for schoolwork information versus the current events information because personally, I mean you say we’re closer to teenagers and it feels less and less like that every day, but I would fall into the boat of, I also get my current information or my current events from social media.

I think it’s just sort of the norm. I don’t expect this number to dip in the way that it has for schoolwork help reliance on the internet when it comes to teens and where they’re getting their help. I would be shocked if in a couple installments of this survey later that we see teens are primarily getting their information about current events from family members or friends. I do think friends is one thing that could be interesting talking about it at school, outside of school, I think friends are a good source, but family members I think would be interesting. I’m shocked to see that teachers and TVs, news, radio are much higher than podcasts. I feel like, at least from where I’m at and my friends in my generation, I feel like podcasts are pretty popular and I wonder when that will hit the teenagers of today. I don’t know. I think it’s a pretty interesting question. I’m looking forward. I think I would fight for this question to stay on for at least a couple more waves of this survey because I think it’s trending in an interesting direction.

John Kristof: I’ll jump on this real quick. Just to tag on to what Colyn said. I have two takeaways from this question and neither of them directly answer Mike’s question. It’s the beauty of this podcast. One is that I think one possible takeaway from this chart, from the data that we have, I think is an indication that teenagers are actually just less interested in news about current events in general. And I say that because if you look at the last three waves that we’ve been doing this survey, the total number of news sources selected, if you will, has just gone down. I don’t have the back of the napkin math in front of me, but this is a question where we allow the teenagers to check all that apply about where they get their news and information from. And basically just overall on average, fewer responses are being selected, and that includes the decrease in use of social media platforms.

It also includes a decrease in relying on family members. It also includes a decrease in looking at television or newspapers or things like that. That one’s compared to last year altogether as well as family members. Even podcasts we went down compared to last year. So, I don’t know if that’s a sign that there’s just news fatigue and is that stress about current events? Is it there’s just information overload? Is it that kids care a little bit less? Is it that current events are just a little bit less interesting than they were a year ago? I don’t know. That’d be a take.

I think that that’s one interesting possible approach. I mean, the data’s there as to whatever that means, I think is up for debate. But about social media particularly it’s hard for me to even moralize about whether it’s good or bad because it just is at this point, whether we like it or not, I don’t know. It’s like the-

Mike McShane: You can’t stop the tide.

John Kristof: Yeah, you can’t unring the bell, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, whatever metaphors you want to use. It just is the way information is most frequently delivered now. And I think we just have to ask, what does that do for the delivery of information? And I don’t know that it’s that much more unique for teenagers than it is for the rest of us. I think the difference is just who curates the information. And I think in the age of newspapers and cable TV being a primary source, the curators were the editors. The curators were the producers or directors or whatever job titles that those people had. And so it was a very centralized curation of information about current events.

And now that curation is much more decentralized, at least in one perspective because we respond to what we see on social media and then the algorithms respond to that because algorithms have an incentive to keep us on social media for longer. But then on the other hand, some people will argue that the algorithm is actually a very centralized curation of information that is unhealthy, and we can have that debate. But my thought on that is I don’t think that social media has any more or less of an incentive to keep people glued to absorbing what it has to say than cable TV, than newspapers and radio and things like that has. There’s always been that incentive. So, it’s just a question of what do we do with a more decentralized curation of the information. There’s a lot of opportunity and with a lot of opportunity comes a lot of responsibility. We can have those conversations, but it’s here to stay. It’s about how do you navigate it. I think we’re past the point of whether it’s good or bad in an ideal world.

Mike McShane: Well, John, Colyn, a pleasure as always. I think I always love when our polling provokes interesting conversations. The fun thing about polling is that it’s just the numbers. We just ask these young people what they think, and then we have to try and make sense of all of it. And there are a few people that I would prefer making sense of all of this than the two of you. As always, folks can head to our website. There’s the edchoice.org and our EdChoice Engage, which is where Colyn’s wonderful blog summarizing some of the big hits from this particular poll. You can check out the pull itself at edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. If you go up to the resources tab in the upper right-hand corner, you can see this wonderful PowerPoint presentation that Morning Consult puts together. You can check out the Crosstabs where we can break out all of these by demographics, which is also actually interesting.

If this was like a Joe Rogan style podcast and we spoke for three hours, we could dig into all these fascinating demographic differences that show up with students and across all of these dimensions and what the implications might be. But dear listeners, you may just have to do that for yourselves. And then you can also check out the actual survey questions that we ask and see how they compare to what other people were doing. So, that’s all available there for you. As always, thank you to my fellow talkers on this. Thank you to our wonderful communications team who is going to edit this podcast and promote it. And we really appreciate the work that you always do. And thanks to all of you for listening, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next edition of EdChoice Chats.