From AACTE Advisor | October 2012 issue
The most recent version of the PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s attitudes toward the public schools was released August 22. Polls represent a quick snapshot of public opinion at a particular point in time, much as standardized tests capture topical understanding on a single day. In both instances, results may be skewed by a variety of factors. All the same, it is striking to me in reviewing the poll findings how positive they are—in contrast to the doom-and-gloom image of public education so often perpetuated by policy makers and the media.
Note, for example, that 72% of Americans said that teachers gave their children praise or recognition for doing good work in the past 7 days—certainly a component of good teaching; 84% said that they feel their child is safe in school—a change from previous decades; 62% are willing to pay more money in taxes for public schools; and 89% feel it is important to close the achievement gap, with 84% suggesting this can happen while maintaining high standards. To my way of thinking, these results suggest great confidence in our schools.
Moreover, the single biggest problem identified for public schools was lack of financial support (35%), far exceeding lack of discipline (8%), overcrowded schools (5%), and fighting/gang violence (4%). No mention at all of bad teaching, weak teacher preparation, failing schools, or any of the litany of concerns so prevalently discussed in the news. Nowhere does this poll capture a sense of crisis.
But despite the public’s positive views, the media and elected officials portray America’s public schools dramatically differently. Their constant badgering of public schools, teachers, and leaders is in stark contrast to what most Americans apparently feel. To promote their vision of educational nirvana—not to mention to sell newspapers, magazines, and online media—they seem to accentuate pet policies or negative perceptions at every turn.
Critics may argue that the public doesn’t fully grasp the nature of the problems facing public schools. Some PDK/Gallup poll results support that there may be some naivety on the part of respondents. For example, compared with national data, parents overestimated the likelihood that children would graduate from high school and get a good job. When asked about increasing the rigor for attending college teacher preparation, 57% responded favorably, with 93% indicating it should be at least as selective as business, 83% prelaw, 83% engineering, and 75% premedicine—although the impact such changes might have on attracting candidates to teaching was not considered. Furthermore, the majority of the poll respondents supported the common core standards, although I believe that few have ever even read them. Finally, a rousing 42% claim to have voted in an election affecting their community schools, whereas experts suggest that less than 20% of the public ever votes for school boards, the one election that directly impacts local schools.
So the critics may have a point about the public being uninformed or fickle. My take, however, is that there is a different explanation for this great divide. There is an obvious contrast between the negative press that routinely bombards us and the feelings Americans hold about the schools their kids, grandkids, and neighbors’ children attend. It is evident from the majority of these results that Americans feel pretty darned good about the schools and teachers they know. The hyperbole that is promulgated in the media misrepresents what Americans actually experience and ends up shaping their opinion of what they do not know firsthand. Thus the grades the public gives to schools decline the less they know them: 77% give an A or B to the school their eldest attends, but 48% give the schools in their community an A or B, and only 19% give these grades to schools nationwide.
Similarly, responses revealed a disconnect between what people think makes a great teacher and how they think teachers should be evaluated. When asked to describe the characteristics of teachers who affected their lives, respondents identified the top three as caring, encouraging, and believed in me/attentive. Yet respondents split on using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers (52% favorable), with 63% indicating it should make up one third or more of the evaluations. Support for evaluating teachers with tests that are at best a weak proxy for the characteristics that most affects their lives is irrational.
There are multiple areas in public education that cry out for improvement. Promoting a great divide doesn’t help. Perhaps Americans can learn by considering the strong educational culture in Finland. As Pasi Sahlberg argues in Finnish Lessons, the country’s entire educational system is dedicated to issues of equity and serving the whole child. Their success is also due to strong university-based teacher preparation with required high-end master’s training, teacher empowerment over curricular and assessment decisions, and a lack of external mandates for accountability, that collectively help grow student performance and heighten the respect for the field. Ironically, the Gallup/PDK poll data suggest that among most Americans not running for office or selling the news, this sense of what needs to happen is already pretty strong.