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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 09/20/2010

What Americans really think about public schools

By Valerie Strauss

Though it has become something of a sport to bash public education, a new poll shows that most Americans actually think highly of their neighborhood public schools and have trust in teachers.

The Obama administration’s education agenda gets mixed reviews in the 2010 poll by the Gallup organization and Phi Delta Kappa, a global association of education professionals. The PDK/Gallup poll has been conducted with Gallup annually since 1969.

Here are highlights of the poll, published by Kappan Magazine and available here:

* Americans believe the most important national education program should be improving the quality of teaching. Developing demanding standards, creating better tests, and improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools were rated significantly lower.

* Seventy-one percent of Americans say they have trust and confidence in teachers, with a greater percentage (78 percent) of public school parents registering confidence. Two out of three Americans would support their child’s decision to teach in the public schools for a career.

*Overwhelmingly, Americans favor keeping a poorly performing school in their community open with existing teachers and principals, while providing comprehensive outside support. This finding is consistent across political affiliation, age, level of education, region of the country, and other demographics. The Obama administration’s policy requires districts to close or change the staff of failing schools.

*Whether it’s paying the bills, setting standards, deciding what should be taught, or holding schools accountable, Americans believe state government is the responsible agency for public education in the United States. Conversely, four of five Americans believe the federal government should not have a role in holding schools accountable.

*Grades assigned to President Obama for his performance in support of public schools are down 11 percent since last year, and they’re down whether the respondent was a Democrat, Republican, or an independent. Only 34 percent would give him an A or B letter grade with regard to his performance in support of public schools—down from 45 percent last year.

*Support for charter schools is growing. Sixty-eight percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of charter schools, and almost two out of three Americans would support a new public charter school in their communities. Sixty percent of Americans say they would support a large increase in the number of public charter schools operating in the United States. The Obama administration supports the expansion of charter schools.

*Thirty-six percent of Americans say school funding tops the list of the biggest problems facing the schools in their community, followed by lack of discipline and overcrowded schools. School funding has been identified as the biggest problem throughout this decade; this year alone, the number of respondents who cited it increased 4 percentage points over last year’s findings. Public school parents consider funding an even bigger problem — 46 percent of them selected it as the No. 1 challenge facing their schools. For the first time, government interference moved toward the top of the biggest-problem list, jumping from 15th last year to a surprising fifth place.

*The grades Americans assign to the schools in their community have remained relatively stable over the past 35 years, trending slightly upward. This year, almost half of Americans give the schools in their community either an “A” or “B.” Similarly, the grades Americans assign to the nation’s schools, monitored for the past 25 years, have remained relatively stable. However, they are trending downward. This year, only 18 percent of Americans give the nation’s schools as a whole either an “A” or “B.”

*Americans support a revised approach to paying teachers, with almost three out of four Americans believing that quality of work should determine salary, rather than using a standard scale. Almost three out of four Americans believe teacher pay should be very closely or somewhat closely tied to student academic achievement, and more than two out of three Americans support paying teachers higher salaries as an incentive to teach in schools identified as needing improvement.

* Three out of four Americans oppose the idea of paying students money to read books, attend school, or strive for better grades. Consistent with this finding, only one in four parents said they paid their children to do better in school.

* Americans overwhelmingly agree that a college education is necessary for today’s students. Ninety-two percent of parents believe their children will go to college, which will provide more job opportunities and better income. And despite the current recession, three out of four parents believe they are very or somewhat likely to be able to pay for their child’s college education.

* Teachers need more time to learn. Of the two-thirds of Americans who believe increasing student or teacher learning time would increase student learning, more believe that having teachers spend more time learning new ways to teach would have a greater effect on student learning than having students spend more time in school.

Of the 1,008 adults polled for this survey, 67 percent have no children in school, while 28 percent have children in public schools. Five 5 percent were nonpublic school parents.

The obtained sample was weighted to be representative of U.S. adults nationwide. For findings based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is 3 percentage points and, in the case of public school parents, 5 percentage points. It should be noted that in addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Political affiliations were: Republican 32 percent; Democrat 29 percent; Independent 35 percent; Undesignated 4 percent.

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 20, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Research, School turnarounds/reform, Teachers  | Tags:  content standards, failing schools, gallup poll, kappan magazine, obama and education, obama and school reform, pdk poll, phi delta kappa, public schools, school funding, standardized tests, teacher quality, teachers and pay, teachers and respect, what americans think about education  
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Whoa! I'm first!
School reformers need to understand that they're gathering data on large groups of students, but parents evaluate education based on observation of a handful of students. Which is a more valid assessment?

A great many parents have a reasonable idea of what their kids need to learn and whether they're making progress. While some may not participate in the children's education as might be hoped, this doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't interested and observant.They can go directly to their kids' school and address problems with teachers--unless the problems are somehow related to the over-rigid curricula that have grown up to prepare students for tests.

Education "reformers" looking at large groups may well miss important factors, such as students moving in and out of schools and systems. They probably don't know when the arrival of a new principal substantially changed the atmosphere of a school. They've got lots and lots of numbers, but what we really want to know is not how students are doing on tests and assessments but what they're actually able to do that they couldn't do before. .

Posted by: jlhare1 | September 20, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

My children have had great teachers all the way through.

I am not impressed with school districts that require teachers to constantly prep students for standardized tests. There should be more to the curriculum than that.

Nor am I impressed with school districts that push curriculum too fast without giving students a chance to really learn.

I moved to place where public schools still allow teachers to have cultural experiences that include food in French class and take walks to the nature center to collect seeds from native plants.

I am so glad I did.

I don't understand why it has taken this long for the media to investigate these so called reforms. I have seen that certain newspapers main thrust is to blatantly give one side of the story and to actually tell its readers what to think, who to vote for, and which "reforms" are better.

Top down solutions rarely work well, unless you have some buy in from the community. Doesn't everyone know that you need the community, the teachers and the students working together to make a good school?

I also think that the process is as important as the end result, because as educators, we are role models and examples for students. A rude, disrespectful or bullying teacher, principal or administrator is a bad example for students. Suggesting that these particular reforms are so important "for the kids' sake" that it doesn't matter if they are implemented in an unethical fashion is reprehensible. How can that be justified?

At least make a good faith effort to investigate the other sides of the issues, instead of accusing people who have serious, intelligent questions of wanting to maintain the "status quo".

Posted by: celestun100 | September 20, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Time to recognize the flaw of setting the educational policies of this nation simply based upon the minority of poverty public schools in this nation with children that have a great deal of difficulty in learning.

Most middle class Americans are satisfied with their public schools.

Directly address the problems of the minority of poverty public schools in this nation instead of setting national policies that will create problems for the public schools that are effective.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 20, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Yes, the fact is that the vast number of Americans are satisfied with the schools attended by their own children. That's probably the main reason why the current "reform" is doomed to failure: It's simply not reflective of the truth.

The truth is that in every field of endeavor (science, technology, law, medicine, arts and film, military, business, sports etc.) the United States is very competitive. The majority of our adults went to public schools. Also, many countries recognize the success of our schools and study them just as we study systems in other countries. While praising our system, the minister of education for Singapore had this to say "Ours is a meritocracy based on tests, while yours [USA] is a meritocracy based on talent." Like Celestun my children had excellent teachers throughout their school careers and were prepared for the greatest universities in the world.

Yes, we have failed our poorest children but don't discount the success of our whole system. No one else does.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 20, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

As someone getting out of education, I'm still glad to see the public trusts their teachers; but school boards have not generally reflected this confidence. And most teachers I know think "lack of discipline" is a bigger obstacle than budgets -- try teaching when the kids don't even have the ability to pay attention for five minutes! To agree with the previous comments, assessing teacher performance needs to be done very carefully, and can't just rest on teaching to the test as currently practiced.

Posted by: akrauss | September 20, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Poorly performing schools should be closed down to save tax-payers money, there is no benefit in keeping them around. As for the quality of teachers, they all teach the same way, very authoritarian like, words straight out of the text book. The only way for "publik schools" to improve is end the monopoly that government has over education. That means get the federal and state government out of the same way, schools should be controlled locally and there should be competition. Compulsory education laws needs to be abolished too, schools today are already too bureaucratic. ***k the school boards they do not serve in the interest of the students, quite frankly neither do the teachers. The purpose of public schools from my perspective is to prepare students for the workforce and adulthood, it fails at doing both.

Posted by: lockdeltz | September 21, 2010 4:15 AM | Report abuse

lol at Linda/RetiredTeacher. Compared to most 1st world nations our education system is the worst. Europe, Japan, and many other countries look down at our education system.

I want to make you think outside the box for once. Once a person turns 18 they are considered an adult right? Correct me if I am wrong. During their last year of high school shouldn't an 18 year be taking courses to prepare for adult hood? What is the point of taking another year of English, Math, History, and other meaningless subjects that do NOT prepare students for the real world. You see in Europe once a students gets into high school they're already taking course for the career they want to do, thus minimizing the BS courses they shouldn't be taking.

Posted by: lockdeltz | September 21, 2010 4:26 AM | Report abuse

I have to think if parents truly understood what was happening in their child's school as it relates to standards, teacher effectiveness, the waste of spending in education, etc. that the answers would be different. However, most don't so ignorance (planned?) is bliss...I did like the answer that 4 out of 5 believe the feds should NOT be involved...that is smart!

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | September 21, 2010 5:56 AM | Report abuse

It makes me wonder why I don't see published studies that look at the differences in learning ability and style now as apposed to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. It is hard to believe that we suddenly have a nation full of poor and incompetent teachers. Having taught almost 20 years I have witness several shifts in teaching approaches that have always been presented as products of the latest research, the current being biased towards "teaching to the test". Nothing seems to break the trend toward a downward spiral of scores. Could it be that there is another reason? Could it be something involving today's families and their parenting skills (or lack thereof) or the technology-dependency of our children? Could it be the stress and poverty caused by the current economic depression?

The number of children that enter my 6th grade class unprepared to receive the curriculum grows every year. Despite continual intervention, many of these students do not have the retention capabilities to proceed to the next level or are unable to use a skill they have seemingly mastered in a new situation. Problem solving ability is almost non-existent. What the public sees as a lack in teaching ability, teachers see as a loss in the ability of today's child to learn.

Socio-economics plays a tremendous role in this. My students from educated, stable, intact, and interested families generally do well; those from poor, uneducated, broken, or stressed families generally do not. The numbers from the latter category continues to grow. As I see it, this is the trend. This is what needs to be addressed. The catch is that schools are unable to take on the role of stable parent, especially in today's economic climate.

So, is this an epidemic of poor teaching, a shift in today's family, or a change in the ability of today's children to learn? Why don't we focus on how to help families? Why do we refuse to hold them accountable? I ask that question every time I have a child that turns in no homework or is chronically absent. I ask it when I am expected to meet the needs of a 6th grade classroom of 30 kids with abilities ranging from 1st grade to middle school by myself (and we won't even mention discipline issues). I also ask it when I try to do enrichment activities to make school a fun and interesting place that will nurture a life-long interest in learning rather than spend even more time on test skills. The public needs to wake up to the realities of education, not the hype.

Posted by: vherte | September 25, 2010 12:38 AM | Report abuse

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