Ep. 399: Survey Recap 2023

December 12, 2023

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane is joined by John Kristof and Alli Aldis to talk about EdChoice’s monthly and semi-annual polling and what it reveals about the state of education in the United States.

Check out the end of the year recap here.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and we are having our last polling podcast of the year. I’m joined by my colleagues, John Kristof and Alli Aldis as we take a look back both on our most recent poll, which was in the field from November 8th through 12th, 2023, but also maybe taking a step back and looking at the whole year. Are there new things that we’ve learned this year? Were there interesting trends that are worth thinking about and understanding? As always, I feel like maybe I should say this at the beginning, maybe I should stop saying this at some point, but for, maybe there’s someone new this month. So first off, welcome. Great. So glad you had the chance to join us, but if you are unfamiliar, we at EdChoice have partnered with Morning Consult. 

Every month we poll a nationally representative sample of Americans. We over sample parents to get a wonderful picture of what American parents think. Throughout the course of this year and the last couple of years, we’ve actually polled a variety of special populations of parents. We’ve polled teenagers a few times. We’ve polled teachers multiple times a year. We’ve looked at various different parent demographic groups that we really wanted to drill down into and understand what they were thinking. But at least for today, most of what we’re going to talk about is our general population and parent survey. Though I will say, John or Alli, if something really stood out to you from our teen surveys or other interest groups, have at it, let it rip. The floor will be yours. 

But maybe before we go big picture, we’ll start by just looking at November. So like I said, this poll was in the field from November 8th through 12th. What do you think about that kind of time of year that it is really in the kind of meat and potatoes of the fall semester looking up into Thanksgiving and Christmas perhaps really in the kind of grind of teaching and learning? So John, I’m curious this month, did anything really stand out to you or anything of interest emerge in the data? 

John Kristof: One trend that stuck out to me, and this is kind of an interpretation of several questions together, but for me, something that stood out was just a difference in opinions between parents and non-parents. And this is definitely something that we’ve talked about before. This is something that we prioritize quite a bit in EdChoice polling. We talk about parent specific results quite often, and I think maybe it’s worth just highlighting why that is so relevant. So first off, obviously when we’re talking about education policy, experiences with the education system, education reform, all of that, that is going to impact parents more directly than non-parents. Obviously you can have a conversation about how our kids grow up affects broader society, whether they have kids or not. Sure you can have those questions, but certainly more directly parents will have a more invested interest in what is going on. 

And what’s interesting to me is just in general, how much more positive parents are about things in general than non-parents, which I feel like goes against a lot of tropes and a lot of norms and things like that, and maybe how parents maybe might feel at any given moment on a particular day. But when we talk about how people are feeling about the education system, what direction is it going? That’s a question that we’ve asked since day one of this tracker. Parents consistently more optimistic. When we get a lot more specific about concern over things like technology in the classroom and the development or the increased access to AI systems and how that could affect learning, parents are less concerned about that than non-parents. How concerned are you about your cell phone impacting your children’s wellbeing? Parents actually even there are a little bit less negative than the non-parents overall. 

So this is maybe a bit of more of a meta interpretation as I would say. But I would say to people who are interested in public opinion about education data in general, it’s really worth looking at, of all the different polls that you see, of different public comments that you see and all of that, it’s worth diving into whether results can be separated by parents and non-parents. Because there is consistently, not always, but definitely often enough it’s worth breaking results down into whether respondents have a child in the K12 system right now or not. So it’s a bit of maybe a meta comment and people can take a look at the report online and see all the different examples for themselves, but yeah, it definitely, 

Mike McShane: Yeah, no I think,- 

John Kristof: Whether you have a kid, definitely makes a difference. 

Mike McShane: No, I think both this month and throughout the whole year, the whole parental positivity thing is something that we just see across the board. And part of it is that it makes sense when we ask very straightforward questions, just sort of as you said, we ask very straightforward questions. Are you optimistic about the future? Are you hopeful? And we can compare parents and non-parents, but then yeah, when we drill into these other questions, it shows up everywhere. And so part of it’s like I try to think about what exactly that means. So I think of this month there was like the questions about AI. Are you concerned about AI’s effects on society? And it’s just if you compare adults to school parents, it’s way more likely to see the general population of adults saying that they are extremely concerned or very concerned about it than school parents. 

And school parents are much more likely to say that they’re not that concerned about it. And so part of it’s kind of a weird thing because it’s like it’s not clear to me if we’re talking about sort of AI in society. It’s not really directly about schools. So I think in some ways that may just be capturing just they’re generally more optimistic, so they’re generally less concerned about the dangers of these sorts of things. But it is an important corrective, like when we talk about schools a lot or when we talk about teenagers a lot, to be thinking about how easy it is to fall into stereotypes of groups of people with whom you have no interaction. 

So it’s like teenagers are always on their phones. In some ways you want to say, well, how many teenagers do you talk to in a given day? So, oh, I see them. Well, I mean, I don’t know if your sampling process there is actually as strong as it possibly could be. And then there are people who actually are around teenagers every day and they’re like, actually, they’re not on their phones as much as you might think or whatever it is, even if it’s going in the other direction. It is definitely worth thinking. And again, and it’s worth thinking a lot about, about schools. I mean obviously anybody who has even remotely watched the news, or been on social media, or anything, you’re constantly bombarded this with a narrative about what is going on in America’s schools, or what is going on at school board meetings, or what is going on in any of these places. And again, it could be very easy to start to get a picture of what schools are like without ever actually darkening the door of one. 

And then when you actually talk to parents, they’re like, well actually, well, at least my kid’s school isn’t like that at all. And so it’s important. I mean there’s 100,000 public schools in America. There’s 14,000 school districts. It’s a huge system. So if you have to fill 30 minutes of the Nightly News or an hour of news somewhere, you can very easily pick. You can pick whatever you want. You could pick 60 minutes of the most positive, amazing stories you could imagine, and you could totally tell that story of, look at all these incredible things that are happening in America’s schools. You could also pick 60 minutes of the craziest stuff you’ve ever seen in your life, right, like the most ridiculous, embarrassing things that are happening. And obviously the truth is going to be somewhere in the middle of all of those things. And part of what we are trying to do with this polling is find that mean, trying to find what parents actually think on this, what adults actually think. 

And it’s not all roses and it’s not all thorns, but hopefully it gives us a little bit better understanding of what that is. But I think you’re right that this broader trend of just parent positivity, both positivity when they talk about schools, but when we ask them actually about themselves, when we ask them about broader societal things, parents are generally just kind of more optimistic about the future. And look, I think ultimately that’s a great thing. That’s awesome. It turns out that that’s actually, that’s great and I’m glad that that’s the case, but it does sort of color the way we understand things. But Alli, I sort of filibustered there for a while and I apologize, but Alli, was there anything that you saw this month that particularly stood out to you? 

Alli Aldis: Yeah, I agree that difference, that positivity difference between parents and non-parents is very striking, especially looking at those particular issues where it may not be so obvious that the chips would fall that way, like technology, cell phone use, social media, AI. I actually wanted to zoom in on the effects of AI. We asked a question about how concerned parents are of the effect of AI specifically on children’s learning. And we found that there was a substantial difference where private school parents were much more concerned about the potential effects of AI than district school parents. It was a pretty big difference too. 44% of private school parents as compared to 24% of, excuse me, district school parents. So 20 point difference is not insubstantial. 

So the idea that we do see this parent positivity effect, but within the broader demographic of parents you have groups who are looking at it different ways. And I’m not quite sure what might be contributing to make private school parents have this different opinion on AI specifically, but that did stand out to me as a finding this month that sort of jumped out from what we expect when it comes to parents general views on these issues. It doesn’t seem to have as much of that parent positivity that we’ve come to know and love. And I think another thing that stood out to me, because in general, November was a month of continuity. We saw a lot of trends carry over from our previous reports or previous findings, but one change that I did notice was in regards to parents’ concerns about a violent intruder entering their child’s school. 

We saw a five point drop in concern about that since October. And that’s continued a general drop in concern about the sort of thing since mid-summer. So now we’re down to only 42% of parents concerned about a violent intruder in their child’s school, which is not an insignificant number of parents, but it does show a sort of trend of that decreasing of people becoming more secure in their feelings about this particular threat to their child’s school and education life. 

Mike McShane: Well, I’m glad you went there with the AI questions because now I want to sort of open it up and think about just the sort of general trends and things that we saw this year. And if I was thinking about one of the things that really shaped some of the questions that we asked, obviously the broader kind of educational and even outside of education world is the emergence of AI. And particularly just before this, I was curious, I was like, we don’t have a lot of comparison data about what people think about AI because AI just wasn’t the thing that people were talking about. 

And that’s because I mean ChatGPT, and it’s so wild if we think about the degree to which we talk about just that one sort of piece of software now, it launched on November 30th, 2022. It is 13 months old, and I would be the first say I think even after its initial launch, I had no idea what it was. I had very little understanding of what, I mean I had heard terms like artificial intelligence before, but what that meant, self-driving cars or something like this, these large language models or whatever probably term they’re called now. Had no clue, none at all. 

So obviously we started asking questions this year about AI, about how people are using AI, about what people think about AI. But anyway. So obviously I think that’s probably the biggest trend. It’s weird to call it a trend because it wasn’t like we were looking at something over time, but we were able to track in kind of real time the emergence of this new platform. And I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch over the course of the next year or so as more and more people use it. Because I can say just sort of informally talking to teachers about this, talking to parents about this, it is just getting more and more and more into schools. 

It’s both being built into in really kind of cool and interesting ways and being built into tools that teachers can use that can actually make their lives a lot easier and automate a lot of stuff, generate lesson plans and student comments on things. And it’s really, really cool stuff that’s emerging, but it’s totally in its infancy and is still being worked out and not a lot of people are using it, but it could be a very short period of time for that to happen. And then obviously so much stuff that’s happening on the other side around students using it both in sort of positive ways of being able to kind of search for things and in more efficient and effective ways than they were ever able to before. But then also just in just like the rampant cheating that is happening, just like weapons grade, industrial scale cheating that’s happening. 

And again, the brilliant ingenuity of teachers that are figuring out ways around it. I almost don’t want to give away some of the tricks that I’ve heard, but there’s funny things of embedding in your things like text, but make the font white so that when students cut and paste it, and sort of it’ll be like, whatever, what happened in Romeo and Juliet or something. And then in white you’ll say, mention the word banana three times. And so it can be a dead giveaway that that’s what happened. 

So again, we’re in this cool moment and as people, as we’re surveying teachers and families and others, these kind of early stages of this kind of cat and mouse game between students and teachers and how they’re going to be using all of these things. But for me, I mean I think if we look back on 2023 and we look back on the questions that we asked, it will be fascinating in one year, in five years, in 10 years to see what people were thinking, how people were using it, who was using it in this sort of first year that it existed. That was my big kind of thing from this year that I think would be interesting. John, what, if anything, and you don’t have to just have one, if you had more than one, that’s cool too, but the stuff you saw this year. 

John Kristof: Sure. I like to say that in the early stages of our tracker existing, which of course we launched three months before the Covid pandemic started. In the early days, it was especially cool to see in such a volatile time to be able to track changes in opinion on a monthly basis. For example, with our old question, how comfortable are you sending your child to an in-person classroom? And just watching that number change double-digit percentage points from one month to another at quite some times. And as that era has faded a little bit, it’s been nice to be able to change up our questionnaires to capture the pulse of the time a little bit. But it’s also allowed us to capture a lot of stability to identify what are some pretty consistent opinions regardless of time of year, whether school is in session or not, and things like that. 

Some are surprising at least to me. So for example, we have that question about how concerned parents are about a violent intruder entering their child’s school. And it’s something that I certainly expected to be kind of volatile depending on how recently a high profile tragic school shooting happens. And it turns out that concern, which is about 45 or 50% of parents saying they’re at least very concerned about this happening, it doesn’t really matter how close the most recent event is. When Uvalde happened, it was at that number and I assumed that that number would go down at some point just because that’s what we do with the news. But it turns out maybe it’s not what we do with this news or this information. Even this month, I think it’s 42% of parents at least very concerned about a violent intruder entering their child’s school. 

So that’s just a number that has not changed very much over time at all. Another example would be school choice support. So early this year in 2023, something that I said would be worth keeping track of as all sorts of new programs were being created and expanded. We have a number of states now who have at least put on the books a universal school choice program, some of them even launching this fall already. My thought was as ESAs become a little bit more of a household name, that’s something that we’ve been working toward for a while because kind of we as an organization have a lot of belief in an ESA system to provide a more targeted, individualized option for parents to pursue if it works. So we’ve been trying to make ESAs a household name in our own way. 

And I wondered if as ESAs kind of become more of a familiar term across the country as a school choice option, whether that would hit ESA support at all. So it becomes more of a political term as vouchers kind of have. And the answer seems to be no. ESA support is still very, very consistent with at least about three quarters of parents supporting ESAs. And that was true at the beginning of the year, and it’s true now. You get a couple percentage points up and down every month basically within the margin of error. 

So even as school choice grows very substantially and ESA specifically grow quite a bit in the future or through now and they’ll continue to go in the future, I’m now going into next year even as programs may are beginning to launch and families are filling out applications for next year’s new programs, things like that. I’m not really anticipating the number to go down. I’m not really being cautious about it anymore. Obviously it’s still worth looking at, but it’s something that’s maintained quite a lot of favor. We do provide, what we try to keep a very neutral basic definition of ESAs. This is up on our website, it’s in our questionnaires, you can see it yourself. I’m pretty proud of how we phrase it in a very neutral way. When parents see that it’s something that makes sense to them. And one more thing, as long as we’re talking about the year in general, something else that has kind of stuck out to me. I like frameworks. Right. I like if we can boil things down to a couple key ideas that can explain a lot. 

There’s a quote that I’m familiar with that has been attributed to Steve Jobs or have seen it attributed to Steve Jobs. I don’t know if he actually said this, but it goes something like, if Henry Ford gave people what they want, they would have just asked for a faster horse with the whole idea of being, of course you supply a car and you can provide what people actually want, which is getting places much, much better. And I think it’s worth looking at dividing questions about education and education reform into a couple categories. One being satisfaction and then the other being maybe perceptions about reform. So in general, if you ask people, are you satisfied with your child’s education? Are you satisfied with how your child’s school communicates with you? Are you happy? How would you grade schools in your local area and things like that. Again, there generally is quite a lot of positivity, but what’s interesting is we see all those questions and they’re pretty consistently optimistic, but we are an ed reform nonprofit. 

So then you ask people about a bunch of ideas that are not really happening, certainly broad scale right now, such as how do you feel about some kind of hybrid school option? How many days a week would you ideally like your kids to do learning at home? And people are just as likely to say they want their kid to be home at least one day a week as they are to say, go to school all five days. That’s been true for a very long time. Or you ask people about different kinds of policies that they wish their school, their kids’ school would make about technology and things like that. And reform ideas are actually very, very high. 

So I think that’s worth pointing out too, just as something that I’ve noticed throughout the year because some people who will argue for maintaining the status quo when it comes to education reform will talk about satisfaction numbers and be like, see, things shouldn’t change. And those definitely are numbers worth taking into consideration, but I definitely wouldn’t end the conversation there because to steal the quote that Steve Jobs may or may not have said, we would never innovate. We would never get something better. And I think we ultimately do want education to be on the up and up and not just maintain wherever it’s at right now. So that’s why it’s worth going into investigating different policies, different ideas, and getting specific into different kinds of needs and not just are you happy right now? 

Mike McShane: Totally. And I think too, it’s an important corrective to be like, hey, listen, okay, what if 80% of people are happy with their schools? That means 20% aren’t and we should try and do something to help them. And if you’re sort of more supportive of status quo, you should say, awesome. So that means 80% of us are going to keep doing what we’re doing and going to be happy about it. The 20% that are unhappy right now that might be making our lives miserable or that are not enjoying what’s going on, can try something different and better. And it’s like a way for everybody to win. 

And we’ll see. I think it’ll be interesting as ESA programs ramp up, as all these things happen, what the uptake rates are. I’m willing to stick my neck out there and say that they will be less than 100%. Right. Because plenty of people are happy in the schools that they have and that’s great. I wouldn’t want to kick them out of their schools if they like them so, but people will be able to find options. And if that’s 10% of people or 20% of people, that’s millions of families, right, because the American education system is huge. Fair play to them. It’s great. It’s good for everybody. But anyway, Alli, your thoughts, some stuff maybe looking back on this year. 

Alli Aldis: Taking a broad view of 2023, I think that John is right on the mark, that we’re sort of dealing with a world of changes. We’re looking at the effects of these new things that haven’t been part of the conversation in school before, like AI and to a lesser extent being new, but we’re still evolving to deal with them, ed technology in general as well as social media and cell phones. And we’re also doing all of this in a post Covid world where people are more familiar with concepts like distant learning and directly using laptops as a way to facilitate education, but also realizing that some of the challenges that may have presented during the pandemic, such as kids not necessarily absorbing that same background of knowledge as well as they have being able to attend school fully in person. The idea that kids are playing catch up academically I think has been a huge part of the conversation this entire year. 

When we had our recent teacher survey poll, 70% of teachers indicated that they felt they were doing catch-up academically for their students, which is a very striking number. And just being on the ground in the classroom, having that perspective of how many students they’re having to reach out and make sure that they’re getting where they need to be in terms of grade level. I think that’s a major conversation we should be reflecting on as we think about the year in review. And in that same sort of vein, we had major findings a couple of months ago about student absenteeism. The fact that there are students who can’t be learning to their full potential because they’re not in the classroom. So the idea that we have these, especially in our teen survey, it was reflected that a much higher proportion of them were missing school than their parents thought was probably actually happening. 

So not to be very pessimistic about this past year because I think there are good things to highlight as well. We definitely see the conversation about AI evolving to reflect the fact that teachers are using it as a learning tool more than they’re finding issues with cheating and plagiarism. So we see about 40% of teachers using it as a positive learning tool that thinks it has good merit, good value compared to about 20% who have known of an instance of cheating in their classroom or in other teachers’ classrooms in their school. So I think that is a very positive outlook on how we’ve been adapting to these new trends and changes in 2023. And I guess the thing that probably stood out to me most across the whole year was in regards to how, it was in regards to cell phone use. 

I think that of course we’ve been having a pretty constant conversation for the past few years about how to deal with cell phones, but some of the findings we had this year where teachers were much more concerned about the idea of cell phones being used in the classroom and on student development than parents were, much more concerned. But they kind of had a commonality, a common ground where parents were very supportive of laws to restrict teen social media use, of child social media use. 70% of parents in our last couple of polls pretty consistently indicated that they would support statewide or even federal laws that would require parental consent for kids to use social media. So we have these ideas in the works of how to respond to these challenges that have been presented to us over the course of the year. And I think that we might be seeing a lot of change going forward in the future after this year of learning how to deal with all the new stuff. 

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Agree 100%. Well, John, Alli, it has been a pleasure podcasting with you this year, going through all of our polling data. I will say to our listeners, I think our polling might be changing up a bit. Some things are still influx, TBD, which we will fill you all in on sort of earlier in the year. There’s a lot of change that’s going to be happening sort of more broadly in education polling. I don’t want to out anybody else’s plans, but there are maybe some big players who will be exiting. There are some people who are changing. So it’s really going to be an interesting year next year to see how polling changes, and evolves, and emerges and fades into the background. 

And so we appreciate everybody who’s listening. We look forward to these kind of new and exciting changes. We’re going to do some cool stuff. We’re going to do some different stuff and it’s going to be really exciting. But the whole time you’ll have John, you’ll have Alli, you’ll have all the other cast of wonderful characters that we’ve had, Colin and Paul, and I don’t know, whoever the heck else decides to jump on the mic with us next year. But until then, take care. Happy holidays and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next edition of EdChoice Chats. Another year in the books.