What They Say It Does

Over at Eduwonk, there’s a little discussion about a finding in a new Education Next poll that 57 percent of Americans like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and want it reauthorized more or less as-is. What interests the Wonk is that when NCLB is referred to simply as “federal legislation,” support rises to 71 percent:

What jumped out at me is how much language matters. If you ask people about a generic law that does what No Child Left Behind does they are more favorably disposed to it than if you ask them about “No Child Left Behind” specifically.

The Wonk is right – language does matter. But here’s the thing: The Education Next pollsters didn’t tell respondents what NCLB actually does, they very superficially told them what it is supposed to do: force “states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met.”

The language matters because many people aren’t all that familiar with the law, and many such folks would not oppose NCLB if they were told that all it does is require states to set standards and track student mastery of them. The reality, however, is that NCLB does a lot more than that, and is rife with problems that have made it a scourge in many people’s minds, including encouraging states to actually push standards down, not up.

It is perhaps that people have a general sense of how bad NCLB truly is, even if they can’t remember specific problems, that led to a June Educational Testing Service finding that, when asked for their views about NCLB without being given any description of the law, only 41 percent of respondents favored NCLB, while 43 percent viewed it unfavorably. Unfortunately, ETS went on to ask the question with a description even more candy-coated than Education Next’s, raising favorable responses to 56 percent. The public’s true feelings about NCLB were, nonetheless, clear: when not biased by loaded descriptions, Americans simply do not much care for the No Child Left Behind Act.