PDK Poll is annual reality check

Count on the annual Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools to provide a reality check for those of us who spend our lives caught up in education policy debates.

It suggests that many people aren’t consumed with testing, school choice, accountability and the other usual themes of policy arguments. They’re more interested in down-to-earth stuff, like what schools are teaching, how they’re funded and how they treat families.

For example, fewer than half the respondents to the 48th annual PDK Poll, released this week, think schools should focus primarily on academic skills – when nearly all the reform proposals of recent years assume that boosting academics is Goal No. 1. Some 25 percent said schools should emphasize preparing students for jobs, and 26 percent said the priority should be producing good citizens.

And when respondents were asked how best to improve schools, the one approach with clear support was boosting career and technical education. There’s not much support for bolstering honors or advanced classes.

Some other findings:

  • Despite all the hand-wringing by politicians about Common Core, almost half the respondents think current education standards are about right and nearly that many think they’re too easy. Hardly anyone thinks standards are too rigorous.
  • Fifty-nine percent of the public and 55 percent of public school parents oppose letting parents opt their kids out of taking tests. Opposition is stronger among African-Americans. The opt-out movement gets a lot of media attention, but most of the public isn’t on board.
  • By a margin of 84 percent to 14 percent, the public opposes closing schools that under-perform. That’s news public-education advocates will celebrate. But by a 2-to-1 margin, respondents say teachers and administrators at failing schools should be sacked.
  • For the 15th straight year, a lack of adequate funding is most often identified as the chief problem facing public schools. That’s a big change from when I was writing about the poll in the 1990s; then, the public was more worried about school violence and lack of discipline.

In a finding that has been consistent for 48 years, people like the schools they know. Asked to grade schools, one-quarter of respondents gave the nation’s public schools an A or B. But half gave their local schools an A or B. And among public school parents, two-thirds gave their children’s schools an A or B.

The poll finds that parents are much more likely to give their children’s schools high marks if the schools do a good job of communicating. But 40 percent of parents are less than very satisfied with their schools’ outreach efforts. Many wish they had more opportunities to visit and be involved with schools.

Engaging parents can be a challenge given everything else that schools are expected to do — and how busy many parents are as well. But the data suggest it’s an effort that can pay off in improved public support.


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