Ep. 393: Monthly Tracker – September 2023

October 12, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane talks with Alli Aldis and John Kristof about the September 2023 monthly polling data.

What concerns are at the forefront of parents’ minds in these early days of the 2023-24 academic year? The first challenge for today’s school parents may be keeping students in the classroom and off their phones.

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 joining us for our monthly tracker podcast. As many of you know, each month we pull a nationally representative sample of Americans along with our friends at Morning Consult. We over sample parents to get a representative sample of them as well. We ask them a battery of questions about education policy, their thoughts about schools, and various new topics that we sort of cycle in based on the new cycle.

As I said, I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research and EdChoice. I’m joined by my colleagues, Alli Aldis and John Johnson. No, see, I wanted to get it. I wanted it to have that alliteration like we all have. No, it’s John Kristof, even though J and K are right next to each other in the alphabet. So that’s basically close enough.

John Kristof: I was going to say we’re like an alphabetical thing at least.

Mike McShane: Close enough. I guess they say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but we’re all together, the gang’s all here. And we are going to be talking about our general population poll that was in the field in September. Let me pull up the exact dates. September 12th through 14th 2023. We polled for those of you that are curious, 2,258 members of the general population of the United States of America and 1,315 total school parents.

Alli, I want to throw it to you first. You wrote a fantastic blog post summarizing a lot of these findings. I think we’ll open our first segment, our Cleopatra’s Pizza Hut most surprising number. What was the number that stood out to you, caught you by surprise this month?

Alli Aldis: Thanks Mike. I think that when I was looking through these findings, I was really taken aback by some of our new questions on social media. We found that a very large portion of adult support policies limiting social media use among minors. And we’re not talking about a small majority here. We found that 74% of parents would support a state law requiring parental consent for minors to access social media platforms, and 72% would also support this in a federal form of that law.

Now, the support for that doesn’t fall much among the general population either. We found that 69% of the general population adults, not just school parents, would support a state law doing this. So I thought it was pretty surprising that we found that that large of a portion of Americans would agree on something that seems like a potential limitation on things like free speech and expression.

But there’s a serious concern here about how minors are using social media and the impact it’s having on them, as well as on their education, their time in school. So the fact that we have that large of a portion of people agreeing on that I think it is really striking and noteworthy.

Mike McShane: I’ll have to tell you, that was my most surprising number of the month as well. And it’s interesting, I think for all of the reasons that you highlighted, really high numbers. We have requiring minors to leave cell phones and similar devices in their lockers or another secured location during school hours, 69% support, which I thought was really interesting. With one caveat that I know there has been some movement just in the last week or two, I know over in the UK.

They passed a new regulation to ban cell phones in schools, and I was reading some of the commentary at the time. And what I found fascinating was school leaders opening up or sharing stories about before the policy going into place, but just having their own internal policies similar to this of requiring them to keep phones in lockers. Some schools in the states are even using those, what are they called? Yonder pouches or whatever that are sort of sealed in there.

One thing was fascinating was that school leaders were saying, “We could never do this. We want to do this. We think it’s bad. There’s research saying that cell phones are harmful for students, but if we did it, there would be a parent revolt or a student revolt. We could never do this. It will be wildly unpopular. We want it as teachers, but there’s no way that parents would want it.” And the experience that they had in actually doing it was that parents were super supportive.

And said, “Oh no, that’s fine. We know that there’s no way having cell phones in schools is a good idea. It’s going to lead to nothing but problems. We can find other ways to get ahold of our kids.” So that was a sort of anecdotal thing from the UK that I had heard. So that sort of softened the blow of this really surprising me. But again, I think this is actually for schools that are thinking about doing this, this is a really interesting data point.

It’s wild that you brought up… Some people want a federal law, the feds to get involved in these things. So I think that just really highlights in ways that maybe people didn’t possibly understand the acute anxieties, concerns that parents have about social media use about cell phones and about children. I think a lot of that is still forming right now and people are still figuring out how kids are using phones and where it can be positive and where it could be negative.

But I think these are really, really interesting number. So that surprised me as well. John, what was your most surprising number this month?

John Kristof: I’ll just keep the conversation on the social media issue right now because I think it’s interesting that so many parents are interested in policies either as large a scale as federal law, but then also support for smaller scale policies for schools like we’ve talked about. It’s interesting that there’s so much apparent fervor for that kind of thing when we suggest this as an idea. When of course so few parents seem to think that their own children spend a lot of time on social media.

15% of high school parents say that their kids are on social media extremely often. It’s less than 50% of the high school parents think that their kids are on social media very often or extremely often. But a strong majority are interested in these, at least for me, as someone who’s grown up in the internet age feels pretty substantial. And I think it’s relevant when we think about what these kinds of policies would change for kids’ lives.

And when we think about how parents think about their children’s social media usage, we’re able to compare it to how teens view their own social media usage. And we’ve asked a few questions about social media on our own teen polling, which people can kind of reference, but I wanted to kind of bring in actually Pew researches survey on teen technology. This is a 2022 survey. They find that 20% of teens describe themselves on being on YouTube almost constantly and 16% on TikTok almost constantly, 15% on Snapchat almost constantly.

And then when you start adding a descriptor of several times a day, you’re at over, whether that be 60% for teens being on YouTube multiple times a day, more than three out of every 4 teens are on YouTube on a daily basis. More than half of teens are on TikTok on a daily basis. More than half are on Snapchat on a daily basis, half are on Instagram on a daily basis. So policies about social media usage obviously definitely will impact teen culture and just how teens interact with the world quite a bit.

If a lot of teens are describing themselves being on social media quite frequently, a policy limiting their usage at school will obviously make a difference for how schools are run. And I think people will have different opinions about the pros and the cons and what will outweigh what. But I’ve just listed off a bunch of these numbers and I would also suggest that they’re probably understated as well.

I think we’re kind of getting to a moment with social media where there’s a little bit of a stigma where we kind of recognize that we’re spending too much time on social media. And so teens are probably also underestimating or understating. If anything, these numbers are conservative for how much teens are spending on social media. And then parents as well, are also severely probably understating or unaware of how much time their teens probably are spending on social media.

So it’s a topic that’s been done a lot. It is not a surprise to anybody necessarily. We spend a lot of time on social media, especially teenagers, maybe that doesn’t surprise anybody, but sometimes when you’re able to just put a number to it, it does put things in a very different context. There’s a lot of entertainment there. There’s a lot of educational value there. Trying to discern what is what I think sometimes is the biggest challenge.

But regardless, it’s just part of the daily consciousness of teenagers right now.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. So now we’ll take the flip side and we will have the sort of death… What do we call it? Death in taxes. I can’t forget my own bit here. But for our second segment, it’ll be the death and taxes most predictable number. So what is a number that did not surprise us this month? Alli, I think I’ll start with you again. What number did not surprise you out of our September poll?

Alli Aldis: I think I’ll continue on what John was saying about how parents are observing their kids using social media and to how often they’re seeing this frequent use of social media. As John was saying, there’s actually surprisingly not a large portion of parents who are reporting their kids using social media extremely or very often. But what we are seeing is that this is escalating by age group. So 30% of K through 12 parents overall see their kids using social media really often.

But when you look at high school parents in particular, it goes up to 50%. So the fact that we’re seeing this escalation with teenagers using it more is not at all surprising. And just to tie in quickly with the concern that parents are expressing about their kids’ social media use, it’s probably not very shocking to hear that only 12% of parents say that they’re not at all concerned about how their kids are using social media. We have 52% who say they’re very concerned.

But if you put together all of those numbers across the spectrum that we gave options to choose from, we have a pretty small number of people who aren’t concerned at all with what their kids are doing online and how they’re spending their time. So I think that lines up really well with the rest of our findings as well as the general consensus that we have to find ways to be able to respond to the rates at which kids are using social media, how this is impacting their school performance and what we want to do about this going forward.

Which might have led to some of the extreme findings regarding laws we might want to put in place in other responses we have in social media because those things seem shocking to us. But putting it in this context of that high level of concern that’s being expressed, it starts to make a little bit more sense.

Mike McShane: John, what number was least surprising to you?

John Kristof: Some findings that were not too surprising for me was a question about school priorities or priorities in education. And over the years we have found all sorts of different ways of asking parents in the general public about what they value in education. And we have yet another one this month. What we’ve done is we had this list of 20 values that you could have for kids’ schooling experiences. And because in survey world, we are worried about cognitive load and not overburdening people so that they tune out of your survey.

We would randomize what group of 10 words people would see. So we’ve got the large sample size, but 10 values people would see would be randomly selected. And the interesting number to look at I think for this kind of question is what percentage of parents say that a value is extremely important? And I say that because generally we have a positive association with all of these terms, all 20 of the words.

So it’s when a parent says a word and says, that resonates with me to the extent that they’re going to pick the extremely important, obviously it’s kind of all an approximation, but it’s a better sign of when parents feel very strongly about something. And even when you’re only looking at that, it’s pretty clear that parents have a very wide diversity of preferences, of values.

We had a solid three that we’re above 50% with parents’ most valuing respect and honesty and kindness, all very good values and then followed very closely by things like responsibility and gratitude. But most of these things were all in a general ballpark after that point. You can go down the list to close down to the “losers” of this question, and you still have nearly a third of parents talking about valuing moderation and justice and faithfulness and generosity and things like that.

The only one of the 20 values that really didn’t do great is competition with 15% of parents saying that things are extremely important. So the main thing here is that parents are considering all sorts of things when it comes to their kids’ education. And they’ll have different rankings of these as well in their own head when they’re trying to figure out how to make a schooling decision. When they’re trying to figure out what’s most important to how they want their child to grow up and what kind of messages they want to receive.

Different signals from the school, different signals from the teacher are going to be of varying levels of importance. As long as I’m talking about this question, I will also point out something that’s interesting maybe to look at is we also ask this question to non-parents as well, just values for education that kids could receive. Same deal with the 20 terms and things like that. And the two terms where parents and non-parents differed the most were humility and prudence, where parents were 8% and 7% points more likely to value them than non-parents.

And then the two terms that non-parents were more likely to prefer than parents were justice and responsibility at seven points and 12 points respectively. And I think just what I found interesting in those is I would say justice and responsibility probably are a couple terms that are a little bit more community focused and outward focused, and obviously two very good and important things. But maybe we would expect that non-parents would consider how the kids interact with the community a little bit more.

That’s just my theory based on it. We also have other questions about what schools should focus on the most that doesn’t necessarily bear out, but it bears out when we’re talking about these values that we want kids to learn. So I think just a lot of interesting things there, and when you dive into the cross tabs, there’s a lot of interesting things you can find as well if people are interested.

Mike McShane: So my most boring number or my most predictable number, I hate to say boring because it’s still interesting, but most predictable number.

John Kristof: It’s all interesting. Read everything, guys.

Mike McShane: That’s exactly right. What a terrible thing to be like, “Yeah, most of this stuff’s kind of boring.” No, it’s not most of it’s boring. They’re predictable. Predictable does not necessarily mean boring, so I feel bad. Well, now I feel extra bad, but I feel bad in particular because as an organization called EdChoice, as one that spends a lot of time in all other facets talking about school choice related issues. It tends to be on this podcast, the tracker podcast in particular.

We don’t actually spend all that much time talking about our questions related to educational choice. And I think the reason is because they’re quite predictable. The responses that we get are ones that you could pretty much set your watch to, but they are worth periodically revisiting. A lot of times each month we’re like, “Hey, we asked this new question, we found something new. Or Hey, something happened in the news. Maybe that changed people’s opinions.”

But one of the things that we have found with respect to education, savings accounts, school vouchers, charter schools, open enrollment, people’s opinions are pretty much baked on these, and I find this fascinating, even as more states are sort of experimenting with things even as there’s definitely I think more news coverage of things like ESAs than we’ve ever had before. We just don’t see big changes here. I mean, this month, ESAs, well, I’ll start with the description that we give.

ESAs are routinely in the high sixties when we talk about support, when folks saying that they either strongly or somewhat support them. Vouchers and charter schools tend to be in the low to mid-sixties. Open enrollment tends to be in the high sixties. If we don’t use a description and we just use just the term school voucher, ESA or others. Vouchers ESAs are kind of mid-forties, open enrollment charter school is kind of high forties, low fifties, but we just don’t see a large amount of variation in these things.

So in a way, I’m sort of undercutting what I started with and saying that that is actually interesting. It’s interesting in its own way that even when external things are happening, doesn’t seem to alter things all that much. But predictable, definitely predictable what people are going to tell us they think about school choice policies. For our third and final segment, we are going to talk about what number we think will matter most to parents. John, I might throw it to you first on this one. What number from this month do you think would matter most to parents?

John Kristof: One that jumped out to me here is the absenteeism question that we asked.

Mike McShane: Alli took my first one and you took my second one, but go ahead. It’s yours.

John Kristof: All right. I won’t dwell on it too long then. I think the angle that I had that’s kind of interesting is specifically the number of parents who indicated that their child has missed more than 15 days of school over last school year. 3% say that their kid has missed more than 15 days of school. As a reference point, once you get to, usually it’s like 18, 10% of the school year, you’re considered chronically absent. And that’s kind of like a general guideline that once you start getting past that point, your learning suffers quite a bit.

So 3%, you might consider that pretty low. In comparison, the most recent teen survey that we did that a fifth of teenagers indicated that they had missed more than 15 days of school last year. Now obviously a lot of things can be going on here. Either parents are under reporting or something that I wonder just how strong this effect is. The parents who are likely to take a survey maybe are not the parents who are likely to have kids who are missing more than 15 days of school.

I mean, you’re always trying to account for those kinds of effects when you do survey research. But when I see a discrepancy that large between teenagers and then parents of teenagers, it’s very substantial. Obviously when you look at the best data that we have and school self-reported data definitely suggests that more than 3% of children are missing more than 15 days of school each year.

So I think just even from a survey methodology standpoint, I think this is interesting, but obviously it’s really important for parents because schools do what schools do when the kids are there. And obviously there’s a lot of debate in ed policy world. I think about why students are missing more school these days based on a lot of other data that we have. And there’s some debate as to what the strongest effects are but the dynamic between parents and school I think is very strong.

And if the theory that just norms have changed and parents don’t necessarily see the same value in expecting school every day as a lot of norms have changed in a post COVID world. That’s really interesting to know. But that’s not what we find here in the survey, I guess is what I’m saying. That at least based on what we survey parents, we have parents who take the survey, they send their kids to school, the vast majority of the school year.

Mike McShane: So I agree with all of that. That stood out to me as well. That could have qualified as my most surprising number. It’s like something ain’t adding up here. The only thing I will add onto that was even given these numbers and trusting that they’re accurate, I think something that stands out is if you look at the groups, if we pull out in the subgroups of the students that miss more than 10 days, the largest number, 13% of low income students, then it’s small town.

It’s not clear to me why that might particularly matter, but then it is students with special needs, students identified as being in special education. So we think of two disadvantaged groups, where they’re low income or students with special needs being the most likely to have said that they were gone for at least 10 days. Students need to be in school. So I think that that is something that’s really going to matter both to those children’s parents and the children’s of those parents, classmates and others, and all of us before long.

If those are the patterns that the students who miss the most were the students who were the most disadvantaged, most likely to be behind already, all of those things. We could just be compounding those problems and something that we definitely need to be thinking about intervening on, ameliorating, figuring out what to do. So Alli, what was yours?

Alli Aldis: Well, I guess we’re starting to see a pattern here because absenteeism was also my pick for…

Mike McShane: There we go.

Alli Aldis: I couldn’t have said it better. The discrepancy we’re seeing between our parents and our teens responding to this question is really striking. I’d just like to maybe provide one more figure there. I know John was talking about how many people we see talking about missing more than 15 days of school. But even from a broader view, we see that for those who report missing more than five days of school, that’s 30% of parents saying their child is missing more than five days of school, but 58% of teens say they’re missing more than five days of school.

So even at the less extreme end of things, we’re still seeing a big difference, obviously there could be a lot of explanations for this, whether it’s methodology or the fact that we’re serving all school parents versus just the parents of teens. But I think that there could be a real situation here where parents aren’t always aware when their kids are missing school, which I think is going to matter a lot, but not to harp on the same thing too much.

I’d say something that will probably also matter to parents this month is we asked about mental health services, which we haven’t always done in every poll. And we’re seeing that 59% of school parents say that their child’s school offers mental health services, but we’re also seeing big gaps between different types of schools. So for public school parents, 57% is about the number who say that they have mental health services at their child’s schools. But charter and private schools are about three fourths of parents.

75% are saying that they have those services available. Now we’re in the business of school choice. So the fact that there’s that much larger portion of people who have that support service available for the kids might be a decision-making factor when people are considering what educational options are best for their students. Just to sort of reflect on that, among parents whose child’s school doesn’t have these services over half say that they would like this kind of support.

So there’s a demand for this. There’s a desire to supply these extra resources for kids to help them along in their education and how to manage their daily lives. So I think that’s going to be something that is going to matter a lot to parents, especially as awareness of mental health among students and their needs increases.

Mike McShane: Well, John, Alli, appreciate you as always. Appreciate everybody who’s listening, our wonderful communications team who edits this podcast and then publicizes it and gets it transcribed and everything. Thanks to all of you for making that happen. Jacob and Eve et al., and thanks to everybody who’s listening, I hope you enjoyed the podcast this month. I look forward to next month when new numbers are coming out.

I think we have all sorts of cool polling stuff in the works, which I’m excited to share with all of you, but we’ll let that unfold as it needs to. But until then, it was great talking with all of you all, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next edition of EdChoice Chats.