Polls Show Divided Opinions on Many Education Topics

Polls Show Divided Opinions on Many Education Topics

Three national opinion polls on K-12 education issues were released this month, covering topics from the Common Core standards to expanding school choice.  In some areas, a national consensus seems very clear.  In many others, the surveys give contradictory results – sometimes even within the same poll.  Some highlights:

  • Quality of Schools. The public gives very high “grades” for schools their own children attend or schools in their community, but much lower marks for schools nationally – which suggests either most public schools are better than the national perception, or people have inflated views of the closest schools.  Private schools get higher grades, either locally or nationally.

  • Preparing Students.  Most people think schools today are better than when they attended, but have serious concerns about whether students are being prepared effectively for college, employment and financial independence.

  • Standards and Assessments.  Only half of the public has heard about the new Common Core standards being implemented in 45 states (including Kansas), and different polls found very different attitudes about the benefits of the new standards and standardized testing in general.

  • Teachers.  The public has positive attitudes about teachers, but think teacher salaries are lower than they really are. People value teacher attitudes and effectiveness more than academic degrees or experience.  There were mixed responses about using test results for teacher evaluation, and support both for reforming teacher tenure and providing new or struggling teachers with assistance.

  • School Choice.  The public is very supportive of homeschooling, virtual schooling and charter schools, although there is considerable confusion over how charter schools really operate.  The public is much less supportive of using public funding to support students in private schools.

  • Preschool.  Every survey showed very strong support for preschool programs.

  • Funding and Resources.  Funding ranks high among the problems facing schools, and the public values programs that require funding.  However, the public thinks funding per pupil is much lower than it actually is.

  • Safety.  The public believes schools are generally very safe for students.  People value mental health services for students over security guards, and favor security guards and screening over arming school employees.

The following is a summary of the major issues covered by the three polls.  Consult the polls themselves for detailed responses and questions not covered here.  The most well-known is the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.  This survey has been conducted annually for 45 years.  Results were based on a  national sample of 1001 adults drawn from the Gallup Panel of 60,000 individuals, surveyed in May, 2013.

The second poll is Parents’ Attitudes on the Quality of Education in the United States, conducted  by the Associated Press (AP) and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Joyce Foundation.  It surveyed 1,025 adult parents of children in kindergarten through 12th grade during June and July of 2013.  

The third poll the 2013 Education Next Survey, conducted by Education Next with Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, which surveyed 1,138 adults in June of 2013, with oversamples of the following subgroups: public school teachers, parents of school-age children, African-Americans, and Hispanics.  It was weighted to account for oversampling of specific groups.

1. Quality of Schools

Grading Schools.  Both the Gallup and AP polls had results similar to many previous polls: people give high marks to the public schools their children attend, not quite as high marks to public schools in their own community, lower marks to schools in their state, and much lower for schools nationally.

Schools your children attend.   Gallup found 71% of parents gave the schools their oldest child attends an A or B, up from 68% ten years ago and almost unchanged from 20 years ago.  Just 5% gave a such schools a D or F.  The AP parents polls had similar results: 76% rated the school their oldest child attends excellent or good; 8% poor or very poor.

Local/Community Public Schools.  Gallup found evaluation of local schools on the rise: 53% gave local schools an A or B, which was the highest percentage ever recorded in the poll, and up from 48% 10 years ago and 37% 20 years ago.  Only 12% gave a D or F.  AP found similar results from parents:  64% rated local public elementary schools Excellent or Good, with 11% Poor or Very Poor; and 54% graded local middle schools and local high schools Excellent or Good, with 13% grading Poor or Very Poor.

However, the Ed Next poll found a lower percentage, 49%, giving public schools in their community an A or B, but a similar number, 16%, giving a D or F.

Public Schools Nationally.  Only 18% of Gallup’s responders gave the nation’s public schools an A or B, down from 26% 10 years ago and little changed from 20 years ago.  Gallup found 53% gave national public schools a C,  little changed from 10 years ago and up from 48 percent 20 years ago; and 25% gave a D or F, up from 15% ten years ago.  Ed Next found similar results: 21% gave public schools “in the nation as whole” an A or B; 23% a D or F.  But parents surveyed by the AP poll rated schools nationally a little higher: 38% rated public schools in the U.S. as Excellent or Good; and 16% o D or F.

Private Schools.  Ed Next asked for attitudes about private schools in your community, and 74% gave an A or B to local private schools. AP asked parents to rate private schools nationally, and 61% rated private schools nationally as Excellent and Good; just 2% Poor or Very Poor, and 25% didn’t know.

Compared to your own education.  AP found that 61% of parents said the education their oldest child is receiving is much or somewhat better than they received as a child (up from 55% in 2010); 21% say worse or somewhat worse.

Preparing Students.  Gallup asked parents only to evaluate certain aspects of their child’s schooling. Almost two-thirds ( 64%) of parents strongly agree or agree their child has substantially higher well-being because of the school he or she attends; down from 70% in 2012; 57% strongly agree/agree the school encourages their child to build stronger relationships with friends and family members; 56% strongly agree/agree the school helps their child become healthier (down from 66% in 2011), and  53% strongly agree or agree the school helps the child be more involved in the community.  However, only 15% strongly agree/agree the school teaches the child to manage finance more effectively, down from 26% in 2011.

Gallup asked all respondents if students leaving various levels of education are prepared for what is usually called “college and career.”  Only 5% strongly agree/agree that today’s high school drop-out is ready for the world of work.  Only 17% strongly agree/agree  that today’s high school graduate in ready for the world of work, and 34% neither Agreed nor Disagreed.  Only 29% strongly agreed/agreed today’s high school graduate is ready for college, but 44% neither Agreed nor Disagreed.  Finally 42% strongly agreed/agreed today’s college graduate is ready for the work of work; 35% neither agreed nor disagreed.

AP found parents tended to rate their local public school higher in preparing students.
For preparing students for college, 57% of parents said their school did an excellent or good job (up from 48% in 2010); and 13% said  poor or very poor.  For preparing students to be good citizens, 55% said excellent/good; 19% poor/very poor.  For giving children the practical skills they will need to be adults, 46% said excellent/good; 22% poor/very poor.  Finally, for preparing students for the workforce, 45% said excellent or good (up from 41% in 2010); 19% poor/very poor.

Taken together, these responses indicate a belief that public schools do fairly well as teaching “the basics” of academic subjects, but not as well in preparing students for “the real world” after high school.

2.  Standards and Assessments

Common Core.  One of the most controversial education issues nationally, as well as in Kansas, has been the Common Core reading and math standards, but at least half of the public and parents know almost nothing about them.   Gallup found that less than half those surveyed (38% of total respondents and 45% of parents) had heard of the Common Core State Standards.  Of those who had heard of the standards, 66% of the total and 77% of parents responded they felt very or somewhat knowledgeable about them.  The AP parent survey found similar results: 26% had heard a great deal or a lot about the Common Core standards; 22% a moderate amount; and 52% little or nothing at all.  Also from AP, 49% said they thought their state had implemented the Common Core; 17% did not; and 34% didn’t know. (Currently 45 states have adopted at least part of the Common Core.)

Requirements:  Gallup found considerable confusion about the Common Core.  Almost half (49%) of those surveyed strongly agree or agree that the Common Core will create standards in all academic areas, and 23% disagree or strongly disagree.  (In fact, the Common Core only provides standards in Language Arts and Mathematics).  Just about one-third (30%) strongly agree/disagree that Common Core is based on a blend of standards; while 26% disagree/strongly disagree.  (In fact, Common Core was developed under the leadership of State Governors and State School Officials to create a more consistent national set of standards, but states are allowed some leeway in adopting the standards.)  Finally, 38% strongly agree/agree that the Federal Government insists all states adopt the Common Core; and 33% disagree/strongly disagree.  (The federal government does not require states to adopt the Common Core but has created incentives to do so.)

Impact.  Gallup found respondents divided on the likely impact of the Common Core: 41% of respondents said it will make the United States more competitive globally; 31% less competitive; and 35% said it will have no effect.  The AP parents surveyed were somewhat more supportive: 47% of those who believe their state is implementing the Common Core said it will improve the quality of education; 11% said it will decrease the quality; 27% say it will have no impact; and 16% don’t know.  However, remember that half parents surveyed had not even heard of the Common Core.

Ed Next found even more support with 19% strongly supporting the Common Core; 46% somewhat supporting; just 8% somewhat opposed; and 5% strongly opposed.  However, almost one in four (23%) neither supported nor opposed, suggesting many did not know enough to form an opinion.

Assessments.  The public also seems divided over student testing.  Gallup found that just 22% of respondents said the increase in testing over the past decade has helped the performance of public schools (down from 28% in 2007); 36% said it has hurt performance (up from 28% in 2007); and 41% said it has made no difference.  However, among parents surveyed by AP, 74% said it is extremely or very important that schools regularly assess whether or not children are meeting statewide expectations by grade level; and another 20% said it was moderately important.  Asked if their children take to many standardized tests, just 26% of AP parents said students take too many tests, compared to 61% who said the number is about right, and 11% who said students take too few tests.

In addition, 69% of parents surveyed by AP said standardized tests measure the quality of education offered by schools very or somewhat well, and 75% said these tests measure their own child’s performance very or somewhat well.

Use of tests.  When asked for which purposes standardized tests should be used, 93% of AP parents said to identify areas where students need extra help; 83% to ensure all students meet adequate national standards; 65% to rank or rate schools; and 40% to determine the level of funding each local school should receive.  While the last three responses would seem to indicate the need for statewide or even national consistency in testing, 46% of AP parents said the local school district should be primarily responsible for determining the subject areas covered by tests, with only 29% preferring the state government and 20% the federal government.

Consequences for Students:  Two surveys found support for using standardized testing to make decisions about individual students.  Among AP parents, 58% said standardized tests should be used to determine whether or not students are promoted or can graduate.  Ed Next found that 44% completely support or somewhat support requiring students to pass an exam to receive a high school diploma, with just 15% percent somewhat or completely opposed.   A much higher percentage completely supports (42%) or somewhat supports (35%) requiring third-graders to pass the state’s reading test to move on to fourth grade, with 11% somewhat opposed and 4% completely opposed.

Last session, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback proposed making passage of a third grade reading test a requirement for students to be promoted to fourth grade, but the bill was substantially changed by the Senate and never considered by the House.

Consequences for Educators:  There were mixed results on the use of tests to make decisions about teachers.  Among AP parents, 60% say standardized tests should be used to evaluate teacher quality.  On the other hand, Gallup found only 41% in favor of requiring teacher evaluations to include how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests (down from 51% last year), with 58% opposed.  Gallup also found just 37% favor releasing information about how the students of individual teachers’ performance on standardized tests (down from 51% last year), with 63% opposed.  Ed Next found 15% completely favor and 34% somewhat favor basing teacher salaries, in part, on their students’ academic performance on state tests, with 23% somewhat opposed and 16% completely opposed.

3.  Educator Issues

Gallup reports 72% of responders have trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching in the public schools, and 65% have trust and confidence in the men and women who serve as principals in the public schools.  Ed Next found much lower levels of support: 42% have complete or a lot of trust and confidence in public school teachers.  (Parent only response is 48% Complete or A Lot of trust and confidence.)  AP reported that 82% of parents rate the quality of their child’s teacher as excellent or good; 13% fair; and 5% poor or very poor.

Important Attributes.  AP asked parents to evaluate the importance of various characteristics of teachers and found more support for attitudes and effectiveness than degrees or experience.
Passionate about teaching.  96% Extremely/Very Important, 3% Moderately Important.
Demonstrate students are learning.  91% Extremely/Very Important, 8% Moderately Important.
Caring toward you child.  90% Extremely/Very Important, 9% Moderately Important.
Role models for your child.  83% Extremely/Very Important, 13% Moderately Important.
College degree in the subject they teach.  77% Extremely/Very Important; 19% Very Important.
Good reputation among parents.  73% Extremely/Very Important, 20% Moderately Important.
Same values as you.  53% Extremely/Very Important, 28% Moderately Important.
Experience teaching.  49% Extremely/Very Important, 35% Moderately Important.
Advanced degree.  38% Extremely/Very Important, 35% Moderately Important.
Experience in a field other than teaching. 35% Extremely/Very Important; 31% Moderately Important.

Teacher Salaries.  Two surveys find the public thinks teachers are paid less than they really are.  Among parents surveyed by the AP,  30% believe the typical teacher in their district makes $35,000 or less; 27% believe $35,000 to $45,000; 13% believe $45,000 to $55,000; and 17% greater than $55,000.  Ed Next found the average estimate of annual teacher salaries is $36,428.  (The actual average Kansas teacher salary last year, including supplemental contracts and board-paid fringe benefits, was over $54,000.  Kansas teacher salaries are well below the national average.)

A majority of parents polled by AP, 56%, said teacher are paid too little; 6% said teachers are paid too much; and 33% said teacher pay is about right.  Ed Next reports that if respondents were NOT told how much teachers actually make, 10% support greatly increasing teacher salaries and 45% support an increase – almost the same percent as AP parents saying teacher are paid too little – and 37% say salaries should stay about the same.  However, Ed NExt reports that if told the actual average salary in their states, only 5% support greatly increasing salaries; 32% support an increase; and 54% say salaries should stay about the same.

When asked which comes closest to their view, 19% of parents surveyed by AP said the amount of pay teachers receive should be based solely on how well their students do on statewide tests; 49% said teacher pay should be based in part on how well their students do on statewide tests and in part on how well they do in classroom observations by local school officials; and 28% said pay should be based solely on how well they do in classroom observations by local school officials.

Tenure.  The AP survey found 80% of parents strongly or somewhat favor making it easier for school districts to fire teachers for poor performance, with just 12% somewhat or strongly opposed.  However, 74% favor districts investing resources in teachers who receive low evaluations to help them improve.  In addition, 87% of parents favor districts investing resources in new teachers to help them learn and develop in the profession.

Ed Next found more mixed results, with 8% strongly in favor and 25% somewhat in favor of offering tenure to teachers; 26% are somewhat opposed; 21% are strongly opposed; and 20% neither in favor nor opposed.  Ed Next also found that 21% strongly favor and 37% somewhat favor requiring teachers to demonstrate their students are making adequate progress on state tests to receive tenure, with 17% somewhat opposed; 10% strongly opposed; and 15% neither in favor nor opposed.

Unions.  Ed Next also found the public divided on the issue of teacher unions, with 6% believing such unions have a strongly positive effect; 26% a somewhat positive effect; 26% a somewhat negative effect; 17% a strongly negative affect; and 25% neither a positive nor negative effect.

Gallup reports that 52% say public school teachers should be able to go on strike, up from 40% in 1980; with slightly less support from public school parents (47%, up from 43% in 1980).

4.  School Choice Policies

Charter Schools.  Gallup found strong support for the concept of charter schools, with 68% supporting schools operating “under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and operating independently.  (This level of support has changed little  in past five years.)  In addition, 67% would support new public charter schools in their community, and 59% would support a large increase in the number of public charter schools operating in the United States.

Ed Next found somewhat lower levels of support, with 18% completely and 33% somewhat supporting the formation of charter schools “which are public funded but not managed by the local school board.” Charter schools were somewhat opposed by 18%, completely opposed by 8%, and 24% neither supporting nor opposed.

Given the levels of support for the concept, it’s not surprising Gallup found that 52% believe students receive a better education at a public charter school than at other public schools; 31% believe other public schools provide better education than charter schools; and 9% say it makes no difference.  In fact, the research on the impact of charter schools is generally inconclusive, with studies to support each position.

Despite support for the concept, Ed Next found many people don’t know much about charter schools, and what they think they know may be wrong.  Asked if charter schools can hold religious services, 19% said they can; 20% said they cannot; and 61% don’t know.  (Publicly funded charter school cannot hold religious services.)  Asked if charter schools can charge tuition, 28% said they can, 22% said they cannot, and 50% don’t know (charter school generally cannot charge tuition, except for student fees).  Asked if charter schools can pick the students they want if demand exceeds space available, 19% said they can pick the students they want; 30% say charter schools must hold a lottery to pick students; and 52% don’t know.  (Depending on state law, charter generally cannot pick students selectively).

These results seem to indicate the public supports the “idea” of charter schools as an option for students but was not very clear on the details.  This may be partly because charter school laws vary significantly among states.  In Kansas, for example, charter schools must be approved by the local school boards, and they are not exempt from state laws and regulations.

Funding for Private Schools.  The Gallup poll found just 29% favor allowing students and parents to choose to attend a private school at public expense (down from 44% last year), and 70 percent oppose.

The Ed Next poll asked the question in two different ways.  First, 17% completely support and 27% somewhat support (total of 44%) allowing “parents with children in public schools to enroll their children in a private schools instead, with the government helping to pay the tuition,” while  20% somewhat and 17%  completely opposed, and 19% neither supporting nor opposing. Second, 13% completely and 28% somewhat favor (41%) using “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools,” with 21% somewhat and 24% completely opposed; and 13% neither in favor nor opposed.

Home Schools.  The Gallup poll found strong support for the option of homeschooling, with 60% in favor the practice of parents teaching their children at home, and 38% opposed. As far as allowing homeschooled students access to public education programs, 90% favor making special education services available to children who are schooled at home; 75% favor providing the opportunity for students to attend public school part-time; and 80% favor the opportunity to participate in public school athletic programs and other after-school activities.

Virtual Education.  The Gallup poll also found strong support for virtual or online education, especially for college courses, with 75% of the total and 80% of parents in favor of allowing high school students to earn college credits online over the Internet.  Gallup also found 55% of the total and 63% of parents in favor of allowing students to earn high school credits over the Internet.

Ed Next reported very similar results, with 54% of the public and 60% of parents in favor of giving students the option of taking approved courses online, while 47% of the public and 40% of parents said students should only take courses in schools.  The poll also found 56% of the public willing or very willing to have a child go through high school taking some academic courses over the Internet, 35% either unwilling or very unwilling; and 10% neither willing nor unwilling.

5. Preschool Programs

One area where all three polls found agreement is support for preschool.  The Gallup poll found 74% believe preschool programs for children from low-income and poverty-level families would help students to perform better in their teenage years a great deal (45%) or quite a lot (29%). This total was down from 81% in 2006 and the same as in 1992. Among parents surveyed by the AP, 80% said preschool programs improve student performance in later years of school; 16% said they did not.

All three polls show high levels of support for public funding of expanded preschool  Gallup found 63% would favor making preschool programs supported by taxes available to three-and four-year-olds whose parents desire such programs, up from 55% in 1991.  Ed Next found similar levels of support, with 60% either completely or somewhat in favor of allowing low- and moderate-income four-year children to attend a preschool program with the government paying the tuition.  Among AP parents, 75% strongly or somewhat favor a plan to use public funds to make preschool available to all 4 year olds in the U.S.

6. Resources

When asked by Gallup to identify the biggest problems that public schools in their community must deal with, 35% said “lack of financial support,” up from 25% ten years ago.  Every other answer was below 10%, with the next seven being lack of discipline (8%), overcrowded schools (7%), lack of parent support (5%), testing/regulations (4%), fighting (3%), difficulty getting good teachers (3%), and use of drugs (3%).

AP gave parents a list of seven items and asked them to evaluate how important each was to the quality of a student’s education: extremely, very, moderately, not too, or not at all important.  Almost two-thirds (65%) said the amount of money a school spends per child is extremely or very importation, and 25% said moderately important.  This response rate is lower than most other items, including the quality of teacher (96% extremely/very important, 3% moderately important); amount of parental involvement (96% extremely/very important; 3% moderately Important); availability of support resources at the school like counselors or tutors (82% extremely/very important; 15% moderately important); availability of up-to-date technology (80% extremely/very important; 17% moderate important); availability of extra-curricular programs, clubs or sports (70% extremely/very important, 4% moderately important); and quality of school buildings (64% extremely/very important; 30% moderately important).  However, most of these other factors would appear to be dependent on available resources.

Ed Next asked those surveyed to guess the average amount of money spent on a child in public schools in their district, with an average response of $6,680. Respondents were then asked if “government funding for public schools in your district” should increase, decrease, or stay about the same. Of those who were NOT told the actual amount of spending in their district, a majority (53%) said funding should be increased, either greatly (14%) or moderately (39%); 40% said funding should stay about the same; and 7% said funding decrease or greatly decrease.  Of those TOLD the actual amount of spending per pupil, support for an increase dropped to 43%, with 9% supporting great increase, and 34% a moderate increase.  The percent who said it should stay about the same rose to 44%, and 13% said funding decrease or greatly decrease.

7. Challenges/Problems

The AP survey asked parents to rate a number of problems as extremely serious, very serious, moderately serious, not too serious, or not serious at all.  Here the percentages of ranking include results in the extremely, very or moderately serious categories: inequality in funding among school districts (64%); lack of parent involvement (62%); getting and keeping good teachers (58%); lack of student discipline (57%); bullying (56%); not enough opportunities for artistic or musical pursuits (55%); quality of curriculum (50%); overcrowding (50%), low expectations for student achievement (54%); low test scores (52%); quality of instruction by teachers (49%); placing emphasis on the wrong subjects (49%); lack of computers and technology (47%); not enough opportunities for physical activities and sports (44%); outdated textbooks (41%); students not spending enough time in school (41%); fighting, gangs and violence (37%); and the condition of school buildings (36%).

8. Safety

The Gallup poll asked several questions about school safety.  Whether in spite of or because of the recent attention over school shootings and bullying, public school parents overwhelmingly feel their students are safe at school, with 88% saying they do not fear for their child’s physical safety.  That is up from 63% in 1998 and 69% in 1977. Only 66% of parents said they did not fear for the safety of their children playing in the neighborhood.  Parents are also much more concerned about the actions of other children (80%) than intruders in the schools (14%).

By an almost two-to-one majority, more Gallup responders favor providing more mental health services (59%) than hiring more security guards (33%) to promote school safety.

Gallup also asked about the use of security guards, arming teachers and administrators, and using screening procedures for those entering schools.  For elementary schools, 45% of the public favored employing security guards, while 42% were opposed; 29% favored arming staff, while 58% were opposed; and 57% supported screening visitors, with 24% opposed.

For middle and high schools, 48% favored security guards, with 30% opposed; 32% favored arming staff, with 55% opposed; and 62% favored screening procedures, with 19% opposed.

9. Other

Gallup found that 47% favored and 50% opposed closing neighborhood schools because of declining enrollment.  In addition, 44% favored and 55% opposed providing free public education benefits to children of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.