Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Perceptions of Public Schools…Fiction Trumps the Truth

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

The October 10, 2012, edition of Education Week features a commentary titled “Public Schools: Glass Half Full or Half Empty?” with both disturbing and hopeful statistics on public education in the United States. The most disturbing part of the article describes the results of a recent Gallup poll showing that public confidence in public K-12 education has fallen to 29 percent – a drop of 29 percentage points from 1973, when Gallup first began including public schools in its survey and public confidence in schools measured 58 percent. The irony in this dismal lack of confidence in such a crucial public institution is that an analysis of performance data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP—the “nation’s report card”) and high school dropout rates shows that results have actually improved over the past two decades.

NAEP scores for both 4th and 8th graders have been trending upward since the 1970s. Compared with an average scale score of 219 in 1973 for 4th graders, 2008’s average scale score of 243 represents significant progress in math performance. The illustrative graphs included in the Education Week article provide a dramatic visual to illustrate this trend and shows the same positive trend line for 8th grade scores. Further, the article states that the high school dropout rate had stayed stubbornly in the double digits for two decades; however, by 2005 it had dropped to ten percent and by 2010 had decreased to 7.4 percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

So, the article asks, why has confidence fallen so low among the public at large in one of our most important public institutions? One suggestion is that Americans in general have become more cynical, but another contributing factor is that we now compare ourselves more closely with the rest of the world, and students in many countries now achieve at higher levels than US students. The statistics around US student performance on the international tests is mixed, with some tests showing improvements while others losing ground.

This is an important article, not only for raising the issue of perception versus a reality that provides both hope and concern, but also for pointing out the positive steps policymakers and educators are taking to address the need for increasing rigor and higher achievement levels for all our students. The authors site the important adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by all but four states and the critical step toward implementing these new standards with fidelity. But they also point to the importance of the way we talk about our collective work in public schooling and the importance of public figures pointing to some of the academic successes achieved by students in our schools.

The reality is that today almost all professionals involved in public education, from classroom teachers, to principals, to superintendents, feel attacked from many quarters. As the authors of this insightful article state, “The accumulation of negative news reports and the labeling of teachers and schools as failures do little to provide a conducive environment for productive change.”

Those of us in leadership positions both within and outside public education should make building public confidence in public schooling through assertive messaging of both the progress and the challenges we all face a top priority. Because if we lose the public confidence in our work and the value of popular support, in the end we’ll lose what makes this country great.

Image from the public domain via Wikimedia Commons