Despite the growing influence of business leaders and think tanks in shaping education policy, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans view them as well informed about schools, according to a new study released by Teachers College. The report,
This research brief examines Americans' views of stakeholders in education: parents, teachers, teacher unions, academic researchers, business leaders, and think tanks. Whereas in the past only elected officials were considered legitimate policy actors, today there are more groups of people competing to shape education policy. But we know very little about which stakeholders are seen as credible by the public, and why.
Since No Child Left Behind federal legislation was signed in 2002, business leaders and philanthropists have invested heavily in testing and education data collection ventures. Private investors and foundations have gained access and influence in the inner circles of education decision makers and surpassed elected officials as authoritative shapers of education policy. But even highly successful corporate leaders-turned education philanthropists have not won the public’s confidence that they know enough about education to be shaping important policy decisions, the survey found.
“We’ve got incredible control of policy by government – and, in the current administration, by businesses as well.” But as a nation, “we don’t think they are knowledgeable. They know how to run large, complex organizations, but they don’t know education.”
— Aaron Pallas
“We’ve got incredible control of policy by government – and, in the current administration, by businesses as well,” said Pallas in an interview. But as a nation, “we don’t think they are knowledgeable. They know how to run large, complex organizations, but they don’t know education.”
The study found that education stakeholders who are closest to the classroom – teachers, parents, and teachers’ unions – are considered better informed about the complex problems facing American schools than other stakeholders. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said classroom teachers are the most knowledgeable about education issues. Parents and teachers’ unions were tied, at about 33 percent each, as most authoritative about education issues, followed by academics, who received the most-knowledgeable rating from nearly 24 percent of respondents.
By contrast, business leaders and think tanks, who enjoy outsized influence in education policy circles, were each rated the most knowledgeable by only 7 percent of respondents, while only 6 percent rated elected officials – who used to have the most sway in education policy decisions, according to the authors – as the most authoritative on education policy matters.
“Close to 24 percent of respondents believe elected officials do not understand the problems facing U.S. schools,” Pizmony-Levy said, adding that respondents defined knowledge about education as “front-line experience of what kids need and how to address these issues.”
The online survey of more than 3,000 respondents, conducted in August and September of 2017, is the first of a series of surveys of Americans’ views on higher education, community schools, K-12 curriculum, governmental role in school choice, and education activism in the U.S., such as the recent Opt Out movement in which students have declined to take standardized achievement tests.
The education policy briefs, in turn, are part of a larger endeavor, The Public Matters: How Americans View Education, Health and Psychology, in which the professors will conduct periodic public opinion surveys and produce policy reports on issues in the three subjects of research and teaching at the College.
“Our vision for The Public Matters is to involve faculty from across all the disciplines at Teachers College in the development of the surveys and the discussion of the results,” said Pizmony-Levy. Faculty members from the College’s higher and post-secondary education program, for example, are involved in preparing an upcoming report on public views about higher education as a public good. “Their research and teaching on the public mission of higher education will be the lens through which we will discuss the findings.”
While respondents in the first survey generally viewed teachers as the most knowledgeable about education problems and elected officials the least knowledgeable, the survey identified significant differences across gender, race and ethnicity, and political ideology in respondents’ answers:
- Women are more likely than men to view stakeholders as well informed about the problems facing our schools.
- Black and Latinx respondents are more likely than Whites to view stakeholders as well informed.
- Respondents in rural areas are less likely to trust experts than their urban counterparts.
- Conservatives are more likely to trust think tanks than liberals and more likely to put their faith in business leaders than in educators, the survey found.
Betsy DeVos’s elevation to Secretary of Education is a “vivid and colorful” illustration of the liberal-vs.-conservative divergence, Pallas said. DeVos is a very wealthy, powerful philanthropist and part of a highly successful corporate family, but possessed virtually no experience in public education prior to assuming office. She is therefore highly valued by conservatives who hold power in the White House and Congress, but is not well respected by the general public, Pallas said.
Having identified which groups of stakeholders are viewed as the most knowledgeable about the problems in education, the authors examined respondents’ perceptions of who should influence education policy. “We might think that education policy should be crafted by those who are most knowledgeable about education problems,” they write, “but the story is more complicated than that.” They found that “perceived expertise in some stakeholders does not automatically translate into a belief that they should be involved in policymaking.”
For example, nearly three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) say teachers should have a great deal of influence on education policy. But only half (50 percent) say the same about teacher unions, which are also highly rated as knowledgeable about education. This “may reflect the belief that unions are self-interested in ways that rank-and-file teachers are not,” they write. In contrast, respondents said that other stakeholders whom they view as not well versed in education issues – for example, business and think tank leaders -- should not be driving education policy (even though, in today’s climate, they are).
“Despite the important role public opinion plays in setting public policy, only limited efforts have been made to document public opinions about education, psychology and health. The Public Matters project seeks to address this gap by providing reliable, valid public opinion data to inform public ”
— from the inaugural report by The Public Matters
Finally, the authors explored the association between Americans’ views toward stakeholders’ understanding of the problems facing U.S. schools and who should influence education policy. Respondents who view a particular stakeholder as well-informed are more likely to say that that stakeholder should have a great deal of influence on education policy. For example, among those who believe that teachers are highly knowledgeable about schools and their problems, 71 percent believe that teachers should influence policy; but only 44 percent of those who view teachers as unaware of school problems believe that they should be setting policy.
Respondents relied heavily on knowledgeability in shaping their views about who should set policy, but they saw some stakeholders as relevant to policy regardless of how much they know about school problems and conditions. Whereas most people believed that teachers should influence policy whether or not they were particularly knowledgeable, they felt that think tanks, academic researchers, and teachers’ unions should be involved in policymaking only if they had first demonstrated knowledge about school conditions.
The ongoing surveys and analysis of public attitudes about education, health and psychology are designed to more closely link public opinion to governance, policies, and practice in those three areas.
“Citizen preferences play a key role in a democracy, and there is a substantial body of work that tries to understand the role that public preferences play in the policy process,” the report says. “Despite the important role public opinion plays in setting public policy, only limited efforts have been made to document public opinions about education, psychology and health. The Public Mind project seeks to address this gap by providing reliable, valid public opinion data to inform public debate. “ – Patricia Lamiell
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.