September 11, 2015
The American people agree on some very simple points about education, but they tend to be all over the place and, at times, contradictory when it comes to the finer and more complicated details of public education.
If you are trying to get a read on how your fellow Americans feel about education, a far better option is to check out the 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. This year’s poll reveals some of the opinions, frustrations, and anxieties of Americans regarding standardized testing, the federal role in education, the Common Core State Standards, and financial support for local schools.
Since the poll has captured almost a half-century of data about education, it can provide a useful historical context for current issues. For example, in 1970, 75 percent of Americans surveyed said they wanted students in their local schools to take national tests so their educational achievement could be compared with students in other communities. Sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement for national testing requirements right? Fast forward 45 years, and we now have a majority of Americans and public school parents saying there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in their public schools. When given a set of options and asked to rank which is the best way to measure the effectiveness of public schools, testing came in dead last with just 14 percent of parents rating test scores as important. Despite this lack of confidence in testing, Americans are split on whether parents should have the right to excuse their child from taking a standardized test, and a majority of public school parents surveyed said they would not excuse their own child from such an exam.
The poll also reveals a lack of confidence in what test results can and cannot tell us about teachers and schools. Americans and public school parents are not comfortable with using standardized test scores to evaluate the performance of teachers or schools. Americans also rank student engagement at school and whether students feel hopeful about their future as far better factors for evaluating schools than test scores. Education leaders and researchers who have questioned the validity of using standardized test scores as the main measure of student or teacher success will be heartened to see those results.
The poll again asked questions related to the public’s views on the Common Core State Standards. Not surprisingly, the poll reports a majority of public school parents oppose having teachers in their local schools use the Common Core to guide instruction. Opposition to the standards is now so prevalent in the media that it seems old hat. What is more interesting is that the poll also reports that Americans and public school parents name academic standards as one of the biggest problems facing the public schools in their community. When you consider the ultra-competitive nature of a more global and more knowledge-based economy, this is fairly stunning. The big question, of course, is whether the antipathy toward the Common Core has tainted the larger conversation about using higher education standards to safeguard the nation as the world becomes more competitive and more focused on knowledge-based skills. The poll seems to indicate that is indeed the case.
Once again, the poll shows that Americans give the highest marks to the schools closest to them, but think far less of everyone else’s schools. They also remain concerned about a lack of financial support for local schools. For the 10th consecutive year, black, white, and Hispanic Americans identified this issue as the biggest problem facing their local schools.
For me, the real value of the PDK/Gallup poll comes from looking at each response and then thinking about the connective tissue between and among them. The poll provides not only a snapshot of public opinion, but also an album of the emotions and opinions that help define our nation’s evolving views on public education.
(This was edited from a longer piece that was featured in the September 2015 issue of Kappan magazine.)