Ep. 397: Monthly Tracker – October 2023

November 15, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane talks with Alli Aldis and John Kristof about October’s monthly polling results.

We asked a range of questions focused on K-12 education, including our usual monitoring of public opinion toward school choice options. In this month’s poll, we also introduced new questions about gifted academic programs and education technology.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice. You are joining us for our Monthly Tracker Polling podcast. As you all may be aware, each month, we partner with Morning Consult to poll a national representative sample of Americans. We over-sample parents. As you might imagine at an organization like EdChoice, we care deeply about what parents think. So we make sure to over-sample them to get a nice representative sample. The poll that we’re going to be talking about today was in the field from October 12th to October 16th, 2023. So really in the kind of meat and potatoes of the fall semester.

I think back to my teaching days, there is a stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, and it may be … Some schools take a fall break, but for schools that don’t, I think that is the longest uninterrupted line of teaching that you do, or learning, depending on which perspective you’re in, or sending your kids to school. We’ll cover all the waterfront there. I think that’s the longest uninterrupted spell because most schools have a spring break, and you have Martin Luther King Day and a few other things that get sprinkled in there. So yeah, this was done right in the middle of it. Parents, we’re asking them questions about school. Their kids are in it. So I think there’s lots of opportunities to get interesting stuff.

I’m joined today by my colleagues John Kristof and Alli Aldis. Alli, I’ll probably throw it to you first. Alli wrote a fantastic blog post summarizing this month’s findings. You can find it on our EdChoice Engage website. As always, you can go to edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com and you can actually see the whole PowerPoint deck that Morning Consult puts together. All the cross tabs, all of the survey instruments, yada, yada, yada. But, Alli, if you wanted to highlight one or two things that stood out to you this month … I’m not going to ask you to do a book report and say, like, “Can you give us the seven things that you found interesting?” But just, what were one or two things that maybe stood out to you this month? Either new questions we asked, or new insights from older questions. What stood out to you this month?

Alli Aldis: Yeah, thanks, Mike. I’d say that this month we asked a lot of new questions centered around education and technology. Trying to get a deeper dive of parents and just the general population’s opinions on how kids are using technology in and out of the classroom, and what sort of red flags that might raise for us if we’re trying to address any problems that’s creating in the classroom. As we might expect, there were a lot of parents that expressed concerns that their children are overusing technology. About 40% of parents reported that their kid is spending too much time on technology. This is across grade levels. It’s pretty similar. It increases a little bit where high school parents are a little bit more worried about this sort of thing, but it’s a pretty substantial group of parents across ages.

This changes with the type of technology we’re looking at. Parents in general are more optimistic about computer use being a useful learning tool than cell phone use. One of the biggest things that stood out to me is that there’s a huge difference between parents’ and teachers’ opinions on cell phone use and how that’s impacting children. About 55% of parents say that cell phone use has been positive for their kids’ learning, but only 16% of teachers are saying that cell phone use is positively impacting student development. So I guess there’s a good question to ask there about why we see this sharp difference in perspective between parents and teachers on the issue of cell phone use, what teachers are seeing in the classroom that parents may not be seeing, or what parents are seeing at home that teachers don’t have as much insight on.

Mike McShane: That’s super interesting. John, what stood out to you this month?

John Kristof: Yeah, the technology questions, I think, remain very interesting to look at. All the different ways that we’ve approached the issue of technology, I think, is vital, because technology means lots of different things, of course. I think the first thing that comes to many people’s mind with technology in the classroom is cell phones and kids, particularly maybe in high school or middle school, looking at cell phones instead of paying attention. But if you ask parents just about the use of technology and the effectiveness of technology in education or how helpful or detrimental technology is, things like computer programs that are used to help foster individualized learning and things like that, which can be very beneficial in certain circumstances, but screen time is still screen time. I think we’re still researching how much the effect screens themselves and just the use of screens themselves affect development and things like that. There’s lots of questions.

One thing that I found particularly interesting, or one angle to look at all of these different questions that we ask, that I think illustrates this kind of back and forth, “There’s this, but then there’s also this,” is just a couple questions about cell phone use particularly. We have one question where we ask parents, “How would you describe the impact of your kids’ cell phone use on their social-emotional development?” Outside of academics specifically, but how is it affecting them more holistically. 55% of parents said that it was somewhat positive or very positive. Just as a reference point, in comparison, 27% say negative. And then a fifth of parents, that means that a fifth of parents say that they don’t know. But think of 55% saying yes, “I think it has some kind of positive social-emotional benefit.”

But then we also ask a question, just very shortly after in the survey, “How concerned are you about social media use on your kids’ mental health?” Honestly, I think when we’re talking about social and emotional development, the connection between cell phones and social media, pretty strong. Then you have 43% of parents saying that they are very concerned or extremely concerned. And then if you want to add parents who even just say that they’re somewhat concerned, you have more than three out of every four parents saying that they are concerned about their kids’ social media use having a negative impact on their mental health. So there’s lots of room for parents to see positives in technology use for their kids’ development and their kids’ academic development, not just with these questions but with lots of other questions, but then, at the same time, many of these parents will also see negative impacts. Maybe it’s a cop-out to say some people like technology and some people don’t.

But the interesting thing is there’s a dual-edged sword to many powerful things, technology and cell phones, social media being some of the most powerful stuff out there. It really comes through here. This just points to an angle about technology that I think about a lot is whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay. You can’t wish away a lot of development that’s happened, a lot of access to internet and social media that just exists. You can’t unring the bell. So the question is, “How can you shape that access and how can you shape those tools to ways that help kids’ development the best?” I think the more that we lean into that question, I think the more effective and healthier our kids will be.

Mike McShane: One thing that stood out to me, which I thought was interesting, on that question of, “How often do you say your child or children spends on social media?” The percentage of K4 parents who said that it was extremely or very often. That’s like 32%, so almost a third. The numbers weren’t that different. Five through eight was 41% and nine through 12 was 49%. I didn’t even know that kids that age could … Doesn’t COPPA say you can’t be under 13 or something?

John Kristof: Maybe they think YouTube or something else is-

Mike McShane: Does that count?

John Kristof: Two things. One is it’s very possible for kids who are maybe nine or 10 years old to tell TikTok or whoever that they’re older than they are. That’s a trick as old as I am. But I also think more particularly, I bet parents are thinking of YouTube. It’d be interesting if we could follow up on particular social media types in the future, but YouTube is very much seen as a social media, I think. YouTube for kids is obviously huge.

Mike McShane: Yeah. I think, too, though … I mean, the one that really stood out to me was this, just a very basic question asking your child, “Do you think they spend too much time on technology, about right, or too little?” Almost no one, rounding to no one, said too little, right? Of all school parents, it was 3% said too little. Now look, a majority, 54%, said about right. I think that’s important to keep in mind. 38% said too much. But then, yeah, across all these other ones, even in nine, 12 parents, only 4% said too little. There were very few people …

Which I think is really interesting because I was just participating in a conversation with a lot of rural education leaders. A big discussion there has always been, I guess this was true in urban schools as well, but around this whole digital divide. Saying that people don’t have access to technology, or these types of things don’t exist and the opportunities aren’t there. Look, maybe the technology that they’re using is slower or others. But it would seem to me that an indication that there are more pronounced gaps in these issues would be if parents were telling us, “Our kids don’t have enough access to technology. We want them to have more access to technology.” I imagine if we asked this question 15 years ago, the numbers might’ve even been reversed and said, “Oh, there’s all these incredible opportunities, but only some people are able to get them and not others.” I wondered how this colors our understanding of things like the digital divide or where those issues are. Maybe we’re actually in the wrong area. So that was one thing.

The other thing that stood out to me, I was thinking about medieval history. I knew that Alli would like that. I knew I was going to be on this with Alli. Alli and I are both massive history nerds. To be fair, John is no slouch, but when you get far enough out on the bell curve, the distances can seem greater than one another. But one of the things that’s always fascinated me about medieval history is that it was this interesting time in which progress, and particularly technological progress, was generally bad. In the sense that most technological progress that took place just enabled better warfare, that allowed just massively more number of people to be killed. Even progress in things like trade and others. This was a time in human history where the benefits of trade didn’t actually redound to normal people. The thing that generally redounded to normal people were plagues and diseases. So quote, unquote, “progress” in the Middle Ages basically just made it more likely for you to get killed, either by some battle stewing disease or by a harrowing army ransacking your land.

Why did I think of that? I’m thinking about these technology questions, right? Obviously, I think all of us have thought about these gains in technology, in social media and others, at least in the course of the last 10 or 15 years, of this, “This is progress and progress is good. All of these … It could be good for education.” When I look at these numbers, I can see both sides of it. I can see where there’s clearly a narrative where you can say, “Parents are telling us that while they do have concerns about their children spending too much time on education,” and teachers have those concerns, “by and large, I don’t see alarm bells necessarily going off here, that parents are massively concerned.” But there’s still enough worrying stuff here to say, “I don’t know, man. Kids really into social media, and really spending too much time on devices. This sort of progress might actually be bad.”

John or Alli, when you look at these things … This is now, we’re stepping outside of the actual numbers and we’re just basely talking things like drunks in a bar. But if that isn’t what podcasts are for, I don’t know what they are. Taking in just more holistically, when you look at all of these questions we’ve been asking, we’ve asked them of teachers, we’re asking them of parents, we’re asking them of the general public, how do you make sense of what these technology questions are telling us?

Alli Aldis: It’s funny you bring up medieval history because last night I was at Barnes & Noble and they got me with a really cool copy of Life in a Medieval City. That’s neither here nor there. To respond to your question, I think that what we’re seeing is that it can’t really be narrowed down to whether technology is being a good or bad influence on kids or on the classroom. We’re living in a post-pandemic classroom where a lot of technology has been brought in, whether we like it or not. Now I think we’re realizing it’s up to us, it’s up to parents, kids, teachers to figure out ways that technology can be beneficial, and try to recognize ways that technology can be harmful. So it’s definitely a two-prong conversation.

I think that’s reflected by a lot of the results we’re seeing from these polls. People have real concerns, but we’re also seeing real benefits and things that seem pretty promising about how we can use technology to boost the learning experience. What you were mentioning earlier about having this great divide, how the internet and technology can really boost accessibility, I think that’s very true and it’s an important thing to keep in mind as we’re looking at these results. Things like computer use being a sustainable resource in the school can be a huge advantage, something that’s even maybe required to access career opportunities for high school kids who are looking for jobs. But things like social media use might pose a threat to making sure we can have a good learning environment in the classroom. So I suppose I am sort of in the same boat as John when I’m not really saying a whole lot of anything, just that there’s nuance, but I think that’s the most accurate picture that we have here.

John Kristof: Yeah, I tend to, “Yes, if …” these kinds of questions. That leads me to be a little bit more on the techno optimist side of things, I suppose. Where, “Yes, technology can be beneficial if we interact with it in a certain way.” The more conversations that I have about technology, and the more I hear from … this isn’t a teachers’ podcast, but the more that I hear from speaking to teachers about the relationship with technology in the classroom now, and just even how much different the classroom is because of technology than it was when I was in elementary school, which all things considered, over the course of American history, is not that long ago, I think, actually, a lot of the conversations about the relationship between technology and kids’ education really is not that different from a lot of conversations that we’re having about the relationship between technology and us as adults.

We can complain about kids spending too much time on social media. There are very few people at this point who have a smartphone who have not had a whole evening go away at some point because they have been looking at a screen so much. I think the common question that I come down to when I think about my social media use, my family’s social media use, I think this applies for kids as well, is, “Are you being a consumer or are you being a producer in some way?” Or, “Are you helping produce something or build something better than was there before?”

Social media is powerful in a very positive sense a lot of times when you are kind of creating things with other people. That’s like the good old days of MySpace and Facebook, if there’s such a thing as the good old days, is when the main purpose of it was putting stuff out there and putting stuff up. Instagram was the same way before it became much more about consuming different types of entertainment. There’s always some, “Both and …” You can still do that now for sure. It’s just not what people think of when it comes to social media. Technology can help us produce things in ways that we couldn’t before.

Similarly, in kids classrooms now, you have a choice between using technology as a kind of pacifier, where you can kind of feel like you’re getting work done because you’re kind of going through motions, or you feel like you’ve got a handle on your classroom because kids are looking at screens and the colors are giving the dopamine responses that kind of satisfy them, or you can really focus on, for example, the type of individualized learning that you can get done because of technology, in ways that couldn’t get done before.

I used this example last month. We can talk about AI as a potential for increased cheating and things like that, and that’s true, but we can also figure out ways to let AI help us create things better than we could before. I would go back to individualized learning. Kids can have conversations with AI and get some kind of basic standard level individualized tutoring for free with AI tools that exist online now. So we just got to figure out how to use the tools we have, and figure out ways to be producers with them and not be satisfied with just consuming entertainment, pacification. The challenges for kids and teachers I think are really not that different from the challenges of us as adults, which means that we’re going to solve them all together as we navigate a changing landscape here.

Mike McShane: What else stood out to folks? We don’t have to be as broad as understanding the nature of technology and how it shapes the human experience. Can be slightly more … bring in the scope of things to be a little bit tighter in focus. Anything else stood out to you all this month?

John Kristof: I’ll jump in real quick. I wanted to mention the question that we have about access to mental health services. This is something that’s split out by school type. We ask parents whether their child’s school provides mental health services to students who need it, to the best of their knowledge. Just to break up by school type, 68% of private school parents say that their kid’s school does, 64% of charter school parents say the same, and 58% of public district school parents say the same.

The main takeaway that I have with this is that there’s really not a huge sector advantage that public district schools have when it comes to access to mental health services. I think that’s important because I’ve seen a number of times, in varying levels of seriousness, between social media and more scholarly sources making these assumptions that public districts have more economies of scale that allow their students to have access to support services, more particularly, mental health services, compared to more decentralized learning options like private schools and charter schools. We’ve asked this kind of question and variations of it before, and I just want to highlight it now.

At least when it comes to survey work, there really winds up not being a difference. Maybe more public district schools should be giving their kids access to mental health services, especially considering how much of a funding advantage they have as well, in addition to the economies of scale, if that’s a meaningful impact. But when it comes to what parents are actually experiencing to the best of their knowledge, the private and charter schools are more than holding their own when it comes to mental health services access. Now, I will say with private schools being the highest at 68%, there might be some people out there who find that surprisingly low. Do with that what you will, but I think that’s an interesting question to pay attention to.

Mike McShane: Alli, anything else stand out to you?

Alli Aldis: Yeah. We asked an interesting question about gifted academic programs and how many parents have kids who are enrolled in some form of advanced education. What we saw was that half of parents said they have a kid taking at least one gifted, advanced, or honors class at school. Which, I’m not sure if I had a formed opinion on how large that percentage would be, but that did stand out to me as pretty striking, that half of parents say that their kid is taking gifted classes. This comes in a lot of forms. We did a little breakdown where we asked parents specifically what kind of gifted programming is offered at their school, like what their kid is enrolled in. The most common by far was honors coursework.

What we’re seeing is that far fewer kids are enrolled in advanced placement or IB courses. Which I think is interesting because that shows that while we may have a lot of students who are taking advanced courses, who are considered gifted by their school districts, we’re seeing fewer kids enrolled in classes where they’ll get college credit for those programs, or be able to take those elsewhere and have these standard results to point to as evidence of what they’ve done. So I’m not sure if that falls more in line of what people might expect for access to those sorts of honors class opportunities. But I did think that disparity was interesting, where we have half of parents saying their kid takes honors courses, but only 15% saying they take AP or IB classes.

Mike McShane: No, I think that’s super interesting. I’m glad you highlighted that because that number really stood out to me too. I’m trying to think sort of ex ante. If you had said, “What percentage of students do you think are enrolled or what percentage of parents would say that they had a student enrolled in gifted class, or honors or whatever?” I would’ve thought the number was much smaller than that. If you had told me a quarter or something, I’d say, “Fair enough.” And look, maybe the students are taking one. But yeah, no, that really … I thought that was really interesting.

The breakdowns, I mean, were interesting, the demographic group, because you had 76% of private school parents said they had least one, quote, unquote, “gifted” child. But even on the low end, it’s still 30%, the very lowest group that we had. So yes, I think this has caused me to really think a lot about the whole phenomenon of gifted education or honors classes or others. It sort of reshaped my perception. Which is one of the great things that polling does, we have these perceptions in our mind, and then the pollings tell us what’s actually happening.

Well, look, Alli, John, it was a pleasure as always. This was great. As I said before, you can check out Alli’s fantastic blog post on our EdChoice Engage website where she goes into some of the greatest hits of this. But again, even this podcast and that blog post are just the movie trailer of the actual report and everything that we’ve done. You can head to edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. That will give all of the information. You go in the upper right hand corner, there’s a little tab called Resource Downloads. You can see the PowerPoint presentation. You can see the cross tabs. You can see the actual survey we did and the manner in which we did it. Check out all of those things. We really encourage folks to dig into the cross tabs, use the information as they best see fit.

As always, thank you so much to my co-hosts here. Thanks to everybody on our communications team who’s going to be involved in editing this. And thanks to all of you for listening. I look forward to chatting with all of you again at some point in the future, hopefully the near future, on the next edition of EdChoice Chats.