We didn’t need a survey to tell us this

What do parents really want when it comes to school reform? Gregory Michie, a public school teacher in Chicago and senior research associate at the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago, looks into the issue in Chicago, where tensions are high over the newly announced closing of 54 public schools. His latest book is  “We Don’t Need Another Hero: Struggle, Hope, and Possibilty in the Age of High-Stakes Schooling.”

By Gregory Michie

Chicagoans are ready for education reform. That’s the conclusion the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board draws from a new survey about the city’s schools it commissioned with the Joyce Foundation.

Of course, by “education reform,” the Tribune means its preferred version of change, which hews closely to the playbook of business-minded reformers: more testing, more charter schools, closure of “underperforming” schools, publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition, and the elimination of teachers’ unions.

For years the Tribune has pushed these ideas by furthering the narrative–in editorial after editorial–that the city’s public schools are an embarrassment and many of its teachers sorely lacking.

Now it claims to have the public on its side. Results of the survey, the editorial board insists, demonstrate that Chicagoans give the city’s schools a “barely passing” grade, and support market-based reform policies as the solution.

But a look at the demographics of survey respondents reveals that, while representative of Chicago as a whole, they don’t reflect those who actually send their children to public schools. As Parents United for Responsible Education pointed out on its blog, 50% of survey respondents were white compared to just 9% of CPS students. Further, “30% of those polled make more than $ 75,000 a year” whereas “87% of CPS students are from low-income families that qualify for federal free or reduced lunches.”

In addition to the skewed sample, a look at the actual survey shows that the Tribune’s analysis of the data in its accompanying editorial is highly selective–a textbook lesson in cherry-picking details (and intentionally leaving out others) to suit one’s agenda.

A few examples:

1. The Tribune’s editorial sounds the alarm that “4 in 10 [survey] respondents give [CPS] schools a barely passing grade of C. Another 2 in 10 grade the system a D…not a report card any child wouldwant to take home.”

What they fail to disclose, however, is that those responses are based on a question about the city’s schools as a whole. As years of results from the PDK/Gallup poll on public attitudes toward education have shown, Americans tend to rate schools as a whole much lower than they do their child’s own school.

The same is true in the Tribune survey. When asked what grade they would give the CPS school that their oldest child actually attends, 74% of respondents said an A or a B–about the same as the national average. Conveniently, the Tribune leaves this out in their interpretation of the data.

2. One of the issues that the Tribune’s editorial board has pushed hardest over the past few years is teacher evaluation. It claims Chicago has far too many ineffective teachers, and that “teacher quality” should be a top priority for reformers. But if Chicagoans agree with this, they have an odd way of showing it. When asked to choose the most important issue facing public education in Chicago, only 11.3% said it is low teacher quality. Over twice that number (24.2%) said the biggest problem is lack of funding, and even more (24.7%) said it is crime, gangs, and drugs–hardly things teachers can be expected to solve alone. Again, the Tribune chose to ignore these results in its analysis.

3. Ever since the days of former schools’ CEO Paul Vallas and the rise of high-stakes testing in Chicago, the Tribune has trumpeted the importance of testing CPS students, and has used standardized test scores as evidence–often the only evidence–to show that Chicago’s schools were “failing” or “improving.” However, when asked to rate several factors as indicators of school quality, only 37% of respondents said student test scores were “very important.”

Testing, of course, is the lynchpin of the corporate reform movement that is so beloved by the Tribune’s editors. But respondents seem to echo what school-based K-12 educators across the country have long contended: Test results should make up only a small part of the picture when determining how well a school is doing. And if that’s true, then students should be spending far less time in school taking tests.

4. In the wake of CPS’s announced plans to close 54 schools–the most in the nation’s history–the Tribune editorial proclaims that “a solid majority” of survey respondents (55.4%) “agree that underenrolled schools should be closed to help balance the system’s budget.” But as Will Caskey notes, this likely says more about a survey sample that skews white and wealthy than it does about mass support for school closings. As the tens of thousands who attended school closing hearings over the past two months can attest, community opposition in affected areas across the city was–and continues to be–vocal and strong.

Besides, the Tribune unsurprisingly omitted that a clear majority of respondents–52.5%–also favored another strategy in the event that CPS’s budget needs balancing: “raise taxes on businesses.” Of course, the day the Tribune writes an editorial calling for that will be the day they run all their ads for free.

A number of other results from the survey directly contradict the market-based school reform agenda the Tribune continually regurgitates. (Indeed, their retread arguments give new meaning to the phrase “recycle your newspapers.”) Only 6.4% of respondents believe closing “low-performing” schools and transferring students to another school is an effective strategy. More people oppose tuition vouchers than support them. And despite the Tribune’s non-stop union-bashing during last year’s successful teacher strike in Chicago, 53.2% of those surveyed–a clear majority–support teachers’ right to strike. Yet these important points were either not highlighted or completely ignored in the Tribune’s editorial that accompanied the survey’s release.

Contrary to the Tribune’s claims, a closer eading of the poll doesn’t reveal widespread support for its agenda. Rather, it shows that, on many educational issues, Chicagoans aren’t buying what the business-minded school reformers are selling. And it shows that the future of public education, and by extension the future of the city, continues to be fiercely contested territory.

We didn’t need a survey to tell us that.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 28, 2013