From the thousands of people who marched on statehouses last spring to demand higher pay for teachers and more money for schools, to the unprecedented number of educators running for public office this fall, Americans’ passion and engagement in education issues has been on display across the country.
A newly released national survey by The Public Matters project at Teachers College paints a portrait of contemporary education activists. The survey found that certain groups – liberals, women, blacks, college-educated, parents and young people – are more politically active than others around education issues.
The survey, “Edu-Activism in the United States: Civic Participation on Educational Issues,” is the first known effort to document the extent to which certain groups participate in education-related activism. A significant aspect of the report is that it takes the pulse of ordinary Americans, said Oren Pizmony-Levy, Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education at Teachers College and co-author of the study.
The survey found that certain groups – liberals, women, blacks, college-educated, parents and young people – are more politically active than others around education issues.
“In policy circles, we pay a lot of attention to top-down changes, but education – especially in the U.S. – is a local matter in which individuals and communities play the biggest role,” Pizmony-Levy said. “That’s why we decided to take a bottom-up approach in exploring public engagement with education-related activism.”
Co-authored by Pizmony-Levy; Nancy Green Saraisky, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Teachers College; and Aaron Pallas, Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, the survey polled 3,117 adults from August 28, 2017 to September 6, 2017.
The survey defined education activism as behaviors “intended to create change in the educational sphere,” including “both individual and collective behaviors that often seek to challenge or defend … school or educational authorities.”
Nearly one-third of respondents indicated that during the previous year they had engaged in at least one form of political or social activism around education issues, from writing letters and signing petitions to marching on state houses and calling for pay raises for teachers and more funding for public schools. Those who had engaged in at least one action in the previous 12 months were the most likely to advocate for much higher spending on education.
By asking respondents to disclose certain demographic characteristics about themselves, researchers were able to determine which groups were more likely than others to engage in education activism.
- Forty percent of respondents who self-identified as liberals said they engaged in education activism at least once, compared to 30 percent of moderates and 28 percent of conservatives.
- College-educated respondents were more inclined to be involved in education activism than those without a college degree, by 40 percent to 29 percent. Nearly half (45 percent) of those with annual incomes of $100,000 or more per year had participated in at least one form of education activism, compared with 26 percent of respondents earning less than $30,000 per year.
The survey also found that:
- About two-fifths of women (39 percent) and one-quarter of men (25 percent) participated in at least one type of education activism in the previous year.
- Among racial and ethnic groups, two-fifths of Asian Americans (44 percent) had participated in education activism, compared with 41 percent of blacks, 38 percent of Latinx, and 27 percent of white
- Forty-four percent of parents of school-aged children participated in at least one education-related action, compared with non-parents (27 percent).
- Younger adults were more likely than their elders to participate in education activism, with 45 percent of respondents ages 18-24 saying they had participated at least once, followed by 40 percent of those ages 25-44; 25 percent ages 45-64, and 20 percent of those 65 and older.
Pizmony-Levy explained the last finding by saying that “younger people are more likely to take part in social movements like activism, and are less likely to take part in conventional politics like voting. Also, younger people are more affected by education policy: they could be students or recent graduates worried about debt; and they could be parents of kids in K-12 schools.”
The researchers didn’t study whether passion about national education issues, such as President Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education, would motivate voters to go to the polls in coming elections, Green Saraisky noted. But the study does suggest that liberals, many of whom bitterly oppose DeVos, are more likely than conservatives to be active on education issues.
“My suspicion would be that it’s not that liberals care more than conservatives about education,” she said, “but that liberals are more mobilized, given the current political environment and the ongoing attacks on public education.” This could be a response to the actions of the current administration, specifically by Secretary DeVos, who is seen by some to be signaling less-than-full commitment to public education and to education as a public good. “This sense of attack on public education mobilizes people who trust the educational system and are committed to public education," she said.
“My suspicion would be that it’s not that liberals care more than conservatives about education,” she said, “but that liberals are more mobilized, given the current political environment and the ongoing attacks on public education.”
– Nancy Green Saraisky
The survey did not ask respondents to identify the issues or concerns that motivated them to take action. But the association between activism and attitudes toward education (specifically, trust in the system and beliefs about education spending) suggests that the results may have captured a growing interest among Americans in supporting and protecting public education in the United States, the authors conclude, adding that more research is needed on this topic.
The survey is the fourth released by The Public Matters: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health, a public survey project at Teachers College launched earlier this year which provides a new source of reliable and valid public opinion data. Funded by the Provost’s Investment Fund, The Public Matters draws on infrastructure and survey research expertise at the College and brings together faculty from across the College to collaborate on public opinion projects related to their specific areas of interest.