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Public Opinion on Public Education

by Ruy Teixeira

Every year, Phi Delta Kappa collaborates with Gallup to do a survey of the publicís attitudes toward the public schools. The content varies from year to year, though there are a number of questions that have been asked for several or even many years. This yearís poll contains a number of interesting findings that are worth flagging.

1. In an open-ended question, lack of financial support for the public schools is cited by the most respondents (20 percent) as the biggest problem facing public schools in their community. Thatís been true every year since 2000. Prior to that, use of drugs or lack of discipline tended to top the list.

2. As always, people rate the public school their oldest child attends the best (69 percent A or B), the public schools in their community the second highest (57 percent A or B among public school parents; 48 percent among all adults), and the schools in the nation as a whole the worst (26 percent A or B among public school parents; 24 percent among all adults).

3. A slight increase over 2004 finds 68 percent of the public saying that reform of the existing public schools is the way to go to improve public education and just 23 percent saying the focus should be finding an alternative to the current system.

4. In terms of vouchers, the poll finds 57 percent opposing ďallowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense,Ē compared to 38 percent who favor such an approach. Thatís consistent with the results of many recent state referenda where vouchers have been soundly defeated and with the results of Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa polls since 1998 when support for vouchers peaked at 44 percent. While a comeback for vouchers in terms of public support cannot be ruled out, right now theyíre looking like a pretty weak part of the conservative agenda.

5. On charter schools, the public declares themselves in favor of the general concept (49 percent to 41 percent, up from 49 percent to 42 percent opposition in 2001), but insists overwhelmingly (80 percent to 14 percent) that such schools should be accountable to states in the same way public schools are.

6. While a substantial group (36 percent) feel there is too much emphasis on achievement testing in the public schools in their community, most (57 percent) feel there is either about the right amount (40 percent) or not enough (17 percent). In addition, by an overwhelming 67 percent to 28 percent margin, they favor expanding No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing in high school to grades 9, 10, and 11.

7. The public is closely divided, however, on whether standardized tests should be used as a measurement of teacher quality (52 percent to 44 percent in favor) or principal quality (50 percent to 46 percent). And, by 58 percent to 33 percent, they worry that the current emphasis on testing will result in teachers ďteaching to the tests,Ē which they believe, by 54 percent to 39 percent, is a ďbad thing.Ē

8. Looking specifically at NCLB, while reported level of knowledge of the act is going up, 59 percent still say that they know very little or nothing at all about it. Reflecting this lack of knowledge, 45 percent say that they donít know enough to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the act. Those that believe they know enough to have an opinion split about 50-50 between favorable and unfavorable views of NCLB.

9. The public dissents from or, at best, is split on a number of different provisions of NCLB described to them in this poll. By 68 percent to 29 percent, they donít think that a singles statewide test provides a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement. By 80 percent to 17 percent, they donít think that testing devoted to English and math only can provide a fair picture of whether a school in their community needs improvement. By 79 percent to 16 percent, if NCLB designated their childís school as in need of improvement, they would prefer that additional efforts be made to help their child achieve in that school, rather than transfer their child to another school not so designated. By 68 percent to 28 percent, they donít think students enrolled in special education should be held to the same academic standards as other students in a school. By 62 percent to 34 percent, they donít think the standardized test scores of special education students should be included with the test scores of other students in determining whether a school needs improvement. By 85 percent to 13 percent, they believe a schoolís performance is better assessed by looking at the improvement students have made during the course of the year, rather than by the percentage of students passing a year-end test. Finally, by 63 percent to 32 percent, they say that the amount of testing improvement required for a school should vary depending on where a schoolís achievement levels start out, rather than being uniform across schools.

The public is closely-divided (48 percent to 44 percent against) on whether test scores should be reported separately by race and ethnicity, disability status, English-speaking ability and poverty level for schools in their community. And they are split, 47 percent for/48 percent against, on whether, if special education students are the only group in school whose test scores need improvement, the entire school should be designated as needing improvement.

To sum it up: reform, yes; charter schools, yes; vouchers, no; testing, yes, but with more flexibility. Thatís the message from this Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, a message broadly consistent with public opinion data collected on education by other surveys.