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The Public Has Spoken!

obriena's picture

Today Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) and Gallup released the results of their 43rd annual poll of the public’s attitudes towards public schools. The poll, a representative survey across all segments of the population of telephone-owning households, makes for a fascinating read.

Something I always find interesting in these polls are the discrepancies. These discrepancies appear both within the poll itself and when comparing the results to broader conversations on education. For example, last year I wrote that the poll showed “[t]he American public is not necessarily having the same conversation as policymakers when it comes to education,” since the poll found that the public did not always agree with the decisions policymakers were making regarding our public schools.

This year, one could argue that the American public is not having the same conversation as the media when it comes to education. 71% of respondents have trust and confidence in the men and women teaching in America’s public schools – and 69% gave the teachers in their communities a grade of A or B. Yet 68% of respondents hear more bad stories than good about teachers in the news media.

And while some newspapers are moving ahead with publishing information on how the students of individual teachers perform on standardized tests, Americans are quite conflicted over the issue (51% favor the reporting of such data, 48% oppose it).

An ever-present discrepancy within the poll itself exists between the public’s perceptions of their local schools versus the nation’s schools. This year, 79% of respondents gave the school their oldest child attends a grade of an A or a B – up 2% from last year and from 67% in 2007. 51% of all respondents gave schools in their community a grade of an A or a B, up 2% from the year before. Yet just 17% gave the nation’s public schools an A or a B – down a percent.

This year, the poll directly addressed this discrepancy with the following question: Americans tend to grade the public schools in their community higher than the public schools in the nation as a whole. Why do you think this is? Top three responses: 43% of respondents think it’s because of greater knowledge of their immediate community and local schools; 17% attribute it to pride in the local community/no one wants to look bad; 6% say negative press and media information about other schools. Of course, this is not including the 15% of respondents who don’t know or refused to answer this question – a surprisingly large proportion, in my opinion (no more than 5% gave that answer to any other question).

Other interesting tidbits from this year’s poll that some might consider discrepancies: While Americans view teachers positively, they view teachers unions negatively (26% say unionization helped the quality of education, 47% say it hurt it, and 25% believe it made no difference – these results vary considerably by political persuasion). But they side with teachers unions over governors 52% to 44% in disputes over collective bargaining policies and state budgets. (Of course, an open-ended question reveals that the public believes funding is the biggest challenge faced by their local schools – so maybe there isn’t a discrepancy there at all).

What major messages can be drawn from the poll? I like the commentary offered by Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association. “The poll underscores the obvious: Americans are hopeful, yet realistic – recognizing that it’s a difficult environment for educators and public schools. They are not supportive of extreme ideology or blame.”

This poll addresses only issues related to education. But for those involved in the presidential politics that are heating up these days, it might be wise to extrapolate that message to a greater context.