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February 26, 2004

Public Opinion on the No Child Left Behind Act

Around the country, Democrats may be tempted to run hard against NCLB and say, implicitly or explicitly, that it needs to be gotten rid of. A review of public opinion data on NCLB suggests they should resist that temptation.

Public opinion on public education has consistently shown that the public has a two point program for education reform: more accountability and more resources. The linkage between the two is neatly captured by a result from a 2001 Education Testing Service (ETS) survey. Respondents were asked what the best way to improve the quality of the public education was: more funding; accountability or both accountability and funding. The dominant response was both accountability and funding (48 percent), rather than simply more funding (25 percent) or accountability (23 percent).

In many ways, this was the premise of the bipartisan NCLB. Backers of the bill, who not only included the Bush administrion and its Congressional allies, but also Democratic liberals like Ted Kennedy and George Miller, maintained that the strict standards set by the law would be accompanied by increased funding that would help schools, particularly those with many at-risk students, meet those goals.

The public for its part, was also favorably disposed toward the bill in the period before its passage. The 2001 ETS poll, for example, reported support levels ranging from 58 percent (funds tied to performance) to 93 percent (funding for K-3 reading) for the very general provisions of the bill, with the emphasis on annualized testing scoring about in the middle of that range (76-78 percent). The poll also found, however, that a large chunk of the public–about two-fifths–did not have any real knowledge about the bill prior to being asked about it on the survey. A 2002 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) poll, conducted roughly five months after passage of the bill, found similar support levels for NCLB’s general provisions, combined with the same lack of prior knowledge of NCLB among two-fifths on the public.

Since that period leading up to and right after NCLB’s passage, however, the bipartisan consensus around education policy has broken down. Critics accuse the NCLB of being inflexible and underfunded and constituting, in many ways, an “unfunded mandate” on the states. Recently, we have had the spectacle of Republican-dominated state legislatures in Ohio, Virginia and Utah severely criticizing the law and threatening to opt out of federal funding to avoid being subject to it.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to gauge how much public support for NCLB has actually shifted due to the lack of knowledge problem and due to the lack of consistent time series data (i.e., the lack of questions about NCLB that have been asked in the same way from passage of the bill to the current time period). However, there are certainly indicators that the public has serious problems with many specific aspects of NCLB implementation.

In terms of testing, the public, in a 2003 Gallup/PDK poll, overwhelmingly (84 percent to 14 percent) said that the best way to judge a school’s performance is to see whether students show reasonable improvement from where they started, rather than whether they meet a fixed standard, as specified in the NCLB Act. And, in the same poll, by more than two to one (66 percent to 32 percent), the public thought that a single test, as in the NCLB Act, cannot provide a fair picture of whether or not a public school needs improvement. The public also strongly endorsed the idea (72 percent to 26 percent) that a single test cannot judge a student’s proficiency in English and math accurately. And, in a January, 2004 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Tarrance Group/National Education Association (GQR/TG) poll, 67 percent agreed that the law was unfair because it labels schools as “failing”, if one group of students doesn’t do well on a test, even if the vast majority do; 71 percent agreed that some kids should be given more time to pass tests for their grade due to differing ability levels; and 89 percent supported a proposal to allow schools to evaluate students’ progress on a number of criteria in addition to standardized tests, including classroom performance and graduation rates.

In terms of sanctions and funding, in a January, 2004 CBS News/New York Times poll, the public, by 58 points (77 percent to 19 percent), opposed using the results of tests to withhold federal funds from those schools where students perform poorly. And over four-fifths (81 percent) in the GQR/TG poll wanted schools to be given more time before penalties are assessed if funding promised by the NCLB has not been given to these schools. In the same poll, by 60 percent to 38 percent, voters supported increased funding, rather than cuts, for schools that are not able to meet federal testing standards.

On the other hand, there is little evidence that the public rejects the law itself or wants to do away with it. General descriptions of the law, particularly its goals and broad emphasis on accountability, continue to elicit strong public support. But it seems fair to say that the public would be supportive of changes that would make NCLB more flexible and better-funded. That's the sweet spot for Democrats in criticizing NCLB--not opposing the act, but seeking to reform it in line with the public's twin commitments to effective accountability and more funding.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.

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Last modified: March 12, 2004

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