Adam Davis is a Founder and Principal of DHM Research, an independent, non-partisan public opinion research and consultation firm in Portland, Oregon. With over 30 years of experience in all phases of public opinion research, Adam’s expertise ranges from survey research design to focus group moderating.
As parents and students settle into the new school year, K-12 public education advocates prepare for the new legislative session scheduled to begin only four months from now. A quick overview of Oregonians’ attitudes about K-12 public education may be valuable to these warriors as they gird for battle in Salem. Some of these considerations may not be news, but as I watch those advocating for a better K-12 public education system, I am often left wondering if it wouldn’t help to remind ourselves of some past lessons. Following are a few findings from our focus groups and surveys that may be valuable in developing effective communications with voters and state legislators.
It is not all about money. Remember, a significant number of Oregonians believe the system has enough money. They see the problem as not using the money wisely. Education advocates should talk about how public education is being more efficient at the state and local levels and how educators are using new ideas and methods to increase student achievement (e.g., Chalkboard). If you want to connect with more voters and legislators, this has to be as much a part of your advocacy language as pleas for more money.
K-3 is the sweet spot. In a time of limited resources, more Oregonians every day have to make tough decisions and set priorities. They expect the same from their elected representatives, who need to focus on getting the best return on taxpayer money. For many people, that means investing in the early grades. As one focus group participant put it, “You’ve lost them by the time they get to the middle grades and high school. You need to be sure they’re given a good foundation to succeed in life.” If any aspect of your advocacy represents an opportunity to improve K-3 education, then talk about it. You’ll be connecting with more voters and legislators.
STEM – be careful. There is strong support for improved education in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. But support is soft for more (and better) STEM education at the expense of investing in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic (yes, in the early grades) and other courses including arts, music, and drama. As another focus group participant said, “Not everyone is cut out for science and math. Other courses like art and music can be what engages a student in school.” STEM may be the darling of the business community, but be careful how you talk about it with voters and many legislators.
“Values” are important (and I’m not talking religion). One issue related to improving public education that unites a diverse group of Oregonians quickly is the need to do a better job instilling in young people values ranging from acting with civility to having a work ethic. Quite frankly, if you want to connect with more voters and legislators, elevate the inculcation of civility as a basic feature of public education and you’ll be hitting a home run.
And the achievement gap (or is that the opportunity gap?) It remains a priority of Oregon voters to close the achievement gap between low-income schools or schools with larger numbers of minority populations, and more affluent schools or schools with larger numbers of white students. If your initiative does something to close the achievement gap, don’t miss the opportunity to mention it in communications with voters and legislators.
And the best (most important) for last—teacher hiring, salary, and tenure. I want to be clear, voters support teachers. They want good teachers to be paid more. The key is “good.” There is strong support for ensuring that a teacher’s impact on student academic growth, as judged by test scores, is one factor in teacher hiring, salary, and tenure decisions. Furthermore, voters want it to be easier to remove bad teachers from the classroom. We hear this all the time from voters in focus groups and surveys. The number one issue for voters is making sure that every student has a good teacher. Growing numbers of voters every day are feeling that it will take more than just increased funding to assure that.
Well, education advocates, I hope these opinion research tidbits are helpful—as timely reminders if nothing else. Depending on the issues you’re involved with, we may be able to help you with other findings as well. DHMResearch is here on the sidelines to work on your behalf as you gear up for what promises to be a historic session in Salem, considering the sputtering economy and federal budget discussions in Washington DC.