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What America thinks about education, 2012 edition

There’s a big problem with public education in this country, but it doesn’t affect my kid. 

If you had to boil down this year’s PDK Gallup poll – probably the most influential survey of American attitudes on education – down to a sentence, that might be it. But there’s much more to learn here, particularly if you care about improving the way we prepare teachers, school choice, or common core standards.

My kids are alright… yours, not so much.

Respondents to the survey strongly agree that there’s a problem in American education, and we need to do something about it. Nine in 10 respondents said it is important to close the achievement gap, and 97% believe it’s important to improve urban schools. But their disapproval spreads beyond underserved communities to embrace most of public education. Only 19% awarded public schools nationally a grade of A or B; only 18% believe that high school graduates are paired for the workplace – and only a third believe that high school graduates are ready for college. Indeed, only a slim majority – 54% – believe that college graduates are ready for the world of work.

Yet when asked about their own kids and their own schools, people answered very differently. Nearly half gave schools in their community a grade of A or B, and more than three quarters gave that grade to their own kids’ school. Pretty much everybody (96%) believes their own kids will graduate from high school, and two-thirds believe they will get a good job.

It’s an old saw that people condemn Congress, but love their congressman, just as they can’t stand the medical care system, but adore their doctor. (That’s actually no longer true about Congress; the astonishingly low approval rates for the institution have finally taken their toll on people’s desire to reelect their own representatives.) The divide in people’s opinions about public education in general versus their own public school is similar, and it’s widening; the percentage giving their own child’s school a good grade is at an all-time high, while their grade for the nation’s public schools is close to an all-time low, with only 1% awarding them an A.

What to do, what to do

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the poll is that, while people don’t think the crisis has come home, they are still anxious to do something about it. For people who care about improving our nation’s schools, it’s worth taking a close look at what people feel is wrong, and what solutions they see.

Asked to name the biggest problem affecting our schools, and given no prompts, respondents called out a lack of funding. That’s not entirely surprising given the state of the economy, but it is striking that more than one third gave that single answer – completely swamping answers about gangs, drugs and discipline that ranked high decade ago. Moreover, 62% said they would be willing to pay more taxes to improve the situation.

The survey then went on to ask about specific reforms. Here are some of the important answers:

Teachers

The American public is broadly supportive of a more rigorous approach to teacher preparation. About two-thirds of respondents to the survey said making entrance requirements for college teacher preparation programs more rigorous would result in more effective teachers graduating, and a majority believed that these programs should be as selective as business and engineering programs. A

slim majority favored requiring that teacher evaluations reflect students’ performance on standardized tests. How much should those grades count for? The largest group –40%– figured grades should count for somewhere between one third and two thirds of a teacher’s evaluation.

Charters

One of the strengths of the 44-year-old annual survey is its ability to track attitudes over time. For a decade, the poll has asked about Americans’ support for charter schools, which is steadily increased over the years, peaking last year with 70% in favor. This year, for the first time, support for charter schools dipped slightly, to 66%. Even more interestingly, support for charters moved dramatically off its middle-of-the-road nonpartisan stance this year, with 80% of Republicans and only 54% of Democrats. For charter supporters like us and for Democrats who believe that parents deserve a choice of schools, these numbers ought to be a wake-up call.

Common Core State Standards

Likewise, supporters of the Common Core state standards should pay careful attention to the survey. Like many others, we at NewSchools believe that a set of high and uniform standards will help a larger proportion of American students access a strong curriculum. Moreover, we think it will create a national marketplace for improving education, allowing small players with good ideas to work nationally, rather than having to redesign their ideas and products for each state. But there’s some work ahead to persuade the American public.

To be sure, three-quarters of Americans believe the Common Core will improve the consistency of the quality of education across school districts and states. But will it improve schools in your community, or make the United States more competitive? Only half of respondents said yes to those questions; 40% saw the Common Core standards having no effect on the quality of local education.

The best news here is that the public believes that there’s a problem to be solved, and is even willing to dig into their pocketbooks to help solve it. Most respondents to the survey have been to a public school in the last year, and three-quarters know at least one public school teacher very well. They care, and there’s energy to be harnessed. There’s also a lot of work ahead.

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