PDK poll offers answers but leaves questions

Parents and the public favor racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, and they don’t put much stock in using standardized tests to measure school quality. At least that’s what they told the pollsters who conducted the 49th annual Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools.

But if that’s the case, why do so many affluent parents get up in arms over proposals to desegregate their neighborhood schools. Why do we accept the idea that property values are higher where schools are whiter and test scores are better?

Are the poll respondents just giving answers that make them sound reasonable? Or do a majority really embrace values of tolerance and diversity. As always, the poll provides a lot of information but leaves plenty of questions for us to debate.

Results of the PDK poll were released this week. On diversity, it found that 70 percent of parents say they would prefer for their child to attend a racially diverse school, and 61 percent prefer an economically mixed school. A majority of the public said racial and economic diversity is good for schools.

Respondents also opposed school voucher programs, which President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have called for expanding. Fifty-two percent opposed vouchers and 39 percent supported them. Opposition rose to 67 percent when the question was framed to include pro- and anti-voucher arguments.

But the news wasn’t all good for public-education advocates. Asked about their preference in types of schools, nearly as many parents would choose a private school as would choose a public school, if cost and convenience weren’t a factor.

On testing, only 42 percent of respondents said standardized test scores are a highly or extremely important measure of school quality. And only 6 percent said test scores are the most important measure.

But on testing, too, there may be less than meets the eye. The preferred indicators of school quality – things like teaching interpersonal skills and offering technology and arts classes – aren’t that easy to quantify. It’s just too easy to compare schools on test scores. Abandoning the myth that high scores equal school quality won’t be easy.

Finally, people once again gave high marks to schools in their own community but much lower grades to the nation’s schools. It’s as if all the schools, like all the children, are above average; not just in Lake Wobegon but everywhere.

What’s new this year is that 15 percent gave a grade of A to their local public schools. That’s the highest figure in over 40 years of polling, PDK says.

The poll no longer asks about charter schools, which have historically enjoyed solid support from the public. That’s too bad, because it would be interesting to know if there was confirmation for a recent Education Next poll that found support for charter schools dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent in the past year.

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