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Education Opinion

Public Edu-opinion-palooza: Results from the New PDK/Gallup Survey

By Rick Hess — August 22, 2012 5 min read
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Today, Phi Delta Kappan releases its annual survey of attitudes towards education. As always, the results are loaded with intriguing stuff. The long-term trends of how the public grades its schools didn’t change, with the public modestly more positive about their local schools than they were in the 1990s, but no evident change in public attitudes towards the nation’s schools writ large. Anyway, let’s take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting findings. Though I’d encourage you to take a look for yourself; you can find the whole thing here.

Obama’s Down, but Dems Still Lead on Schooling: President Obama’s education numbers have taken a beating, with the public now very much mixed on his efforts. Thirty-seven percent of respondents gave him an A or a B on education, while 34% gave him a D or an F. This is down dramatically from ‘09, when the comparable figures were 45% and 21%. Independents were more negative than positive, while Republicans were hugely critical--with just 7% giving him an A or a B, and 61% a D or an F. (So much for the notion that the President’s education efforts enjoy bipartisan support.) In the horse race on education, Obama leads Romney by a modest margin, 49-44; this is dramatically smaller than the 17-point advantage Obama enjoyed on John McCain in ‘08. Meanwhile, Democrats enjoy a twelve-point lead on the education question over the GOP (by 50-38), a slightly smaller lead than in ’08 but a bigger one than in ‘04.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money: The American public continues to delight. Even though communities have been voting down local school tax increases at historic rates, 35% of respondents said that the biggest problem facing American education is a “lack of financial support.” This is up from 23 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile, just eight percent said the biggest problem was a lack of discipline, just five percent said overcrowding, and nothing else registered even that high. So, for all of the efforts by cold-hearted SOB’s like me to make the case that more dollars actually makes it harder to meaningfully redesign schools and systems, the public wants to spend more. In fact, by a 62% to 37% margin, respondents said they’re willing to pay more taxes to support urban schools. Of course, this would be much more compelling if political polling and voting behavior didn’t make it clear that, in practice, voters are bitterly opposed to higher taxes for anyone other than “the rich” (e.g. someone who make more money than they do).

School Spending & Balancing the Budget: In an intriguing finding, and one I would not have expected, respondents said it’s more important for the feds to balance the budget than to put new dollars into education. (This is a surprise, because the public invariably wants to balance the budget in principle, but then says that the feds should spend more on everything, including education.) Respondents supported balancing the budget over “improving the quality of the education system” by 60% to 38%; this is a stark reversal from 1996, when just 25% chose balancing the budget while 64% chose improving education. This year, independents chose balancing the budget by a 2-to-1 margin. This suggests just how tough the road ahead may be for those clamoring for new federal edu-dollars.

Good News for Common Core’ites: There were promising signs when it comes to public opinion on the Common Core. Looks like proponents have won the early fight to shape public attitudes. Fifty-three percent of respondents said Common Core standards would make American schools more competitive, while just seven percent said they’d make them less competitive. Among Republicans, the split was equally uber-positive--44% to 5%. Respondents said common standards would boost the quality of education in their community, by 50-8. Republicans were equally enthusiastic. And, 75-23, respondents said such standards would provide more consistency across schools and states. Of course, the notion of “common standards” has an intuitive appeal; the challenge, for proponents, will be to avoid steps that undermine that. Remember, NCLB polled moderately well in its early years, and then went south with time; Common Core champions will need to do better.

Attitudes Towards Teachers & Teacher Evaluation: Seventy-one percent of respondents say that they have confidence in America’s public school teachers, while 27% don’t. The public is split on states requiring that test results be used as part of teacher evaluation, narrowly supporting such efforts by 52% to 47%. Yet, at the same time, 25% of respondents said two-thirds or more of teacher evaluation should be based on test scores, and 65% said that such scores should account for at least one-third of teacher evaluation--while just 35% said it should account for less than one-third. I have no idea how to reconcile these two sets of figures.

School Choice and the “Parent Trigger": When asked about state laws that allow parents to remove leadership and staff at failing schools (e.g. the “parent trigger”), respondents backed the laws by 70% to 28%. They backed charter schooling by 66-30, in line with results from the last several years. Respondents responded negatively to the poll’s voucher question, by 55-44, though the wording of the question (“should parents be able to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”) gives me little confidence in that result. For reasons that Terry Moe has explained at length, I think that this phrasing frames the question in a manner that biases responses towards the negative.

“Duh” Questions That Seem More About Advocacy Agendas Than Actually Learning Anything: Shockingly, when asked, respondents said teacher programs should have more rigorous admission standards. Indeed, they said the standards should be more rigorous for education than for pre-law, pre-med, business, and engineering. Not sure what to do with that--I’d kind of hope (and expect) people to say that (at least in the midst of a survey in which they’re being asked about education!) Feels more like one of those questions that advocacy groups try to include in order to garner a new talking point than a question actually likely to elicit useful information. Similarly uninformative were findings suggesting that 84% of respondents don’t think today’s high school dropouts are ready “for the world of work” and that 97% of respondents think it’s important to improve urban schools. While I’m a big fan of the PDK poll, various interest groups are incessantly leaning on PDK to wedge in their questions--and I hope that the good folks at PDK make it a point to be vigilant when it comes to weeding out questions whose primary purpose is providing one more bullet point for someone’s advocacy agenda.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.