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Posted at 11:32 AM ET, 08/22/2012

Analyzing the new PDK/Gallup poll on how Americans view public education

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” This first appeared on her blog.

By Diane Ravitch

The annual Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll on education was just released and the sponsors characterize public opinion as split, which is true for many issues.

We must see this poll in the context of an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two years, and by some reckoning, even longer.

The media has parroted endlessly the assertion that our public schools are failures, they are (as Bill Gates memorably said to the nation’s governors in 2005) “obsolete,” and “the system is broken.” How many times have you heard those phrases? How many television specials have you seen claiming that our education system is disastrous? And along comes “Waiting for Superman” with its propagandistic attack on public education in cities and suburbs alike and its appeal for privatization. Add to that Arne Duncan’s faithful parroting of the claims of the critics.

That is the context, and it is remarkable that Americans continue to believe in the schools they know best and to understand what their most critical need is.

Here are the salient findings:

1. Americans have a low opinion of American education (how could they not, given the bombardment of criticism?): only 18% give it an A or B. And here is the real accomplishment of the corporate reformers: Those who judge American education as a D or F have increased from 22% to 30% in the past 20 years. Actually, their success in smearing U.S. education is even greater, because in 2002, before the implementation of NCLB, only 16% judged the nation’s schools so harshly. So the reform campaign has doubled the proportion of Americans who think the nation’s schools deserve a D or F.

2. When asked to evaluate the schools in their own community, 48% give them an A or B, which is the highest rating in 20 years.

3. When asked to evaluate the school their oldest child attends, an astonishing 77% give it an A or B. This is the highest rating in 20 years. Only 6% give it a D or F. This question elicits the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press or condemned as “obsolete” by Bill Gates.

4. When asked whether they have trust and confidence in teachers, 71% said yes. Americans continue to respect and admire teachers, despite the nonstop public bashing of them in the media.

5. When asked whether standardized test scores should be used to evaluate teachers, opinion split 52-47 in favor. Considering that the public has heard nonstop endorsements of this bad idea from President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and most other political figures — and very limited dissent — it is surprising that opinion is almost equally divided. How did so many Americans manage to figure out that this idea is problematic at best?

6. When people were asked to describe the teachers who had the greatest influence in their lives, they used words like caring, compassionate, motivating, and inspiring. Interesting that few remembered the teachers who raised their test scores.

7. There has been a big change in what the public sees as the biggest problems facing the schools today. Ten years ago, the biggest concerns were about discipline (fighting, gangs, drugs, lack of discipline, overcrowding). Today, the biggest problem that the public sees, by far, is lack of financial support. 35% chose that option. Among public school parents, it was 43%. Concerns about discipline almost faded away in comparison to concerns about the lack of financial support for the schools.

8. On the subject of vouchers, there was a surprising increase in the proportion who would support “allowing students to choose a private school at public expense.” It increased from 34% to 44%, which is a big jump. I recommend that future questioning ask about support to allow students “to choose a private or religious school at public expense.” That would be closer to the reality of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana.

9. On the subject of charters, public opinion dipped, from an approval rating of 70% in 2011 to 66% in 2012. It will be interesting to see where this number goes as the public begins to understand more about charters in their own communities.

10. A question about the parent trigger was so vacuous as to be misleading. The question was. “Some states are considering laws that allow parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools. Do you favor or oppose such laws?” 70% favor, 76% of public school parents favor. This is a misleading question, however, as the parent trigger is not a matter of simply allowing parents to sign a petition, but of allowing parents to take control of a public school and hand it over to private management. My guess is that the public doesn’t know much about the parent trigger concept and hasn’t heard a discussion about the pros and cons. So, I don’t put much stock in the response — after all, why shouldn’t parents have the right to sign a petition to change the staff at their school? It does show how clever the corporate reformers are in framing issues that advance privatization and doing it in ways that are deceptive and alluring.

11. In a series of questions about the Common Core State Standards, most people believe they are a good thing and that they will make the nation more competitive globally; about half think they will improve the quality of education while 40% think they will have no effect. These answers exemplify why polls of this kind must be viewed with caution. I am willing to bet that the majority of respondents has no idea what the Common Core standards are; and willing to bet that 98% have never read them.

In future versions of the poll, I hope that questions will be asked about for-profit schools, privatization, and vouchers for religious schools. These are big issues today, and the poll should ask about them.

My takeaway from the 2012 poll is that the corporate reform movement has succeeded in increasing support for vouchers, but that the American public continues to have a remarkably high opinion of the schools and teachers they know best despite the concerted efforts of the reformers to undermine those beliefs. This is an instance where evidence trumps ideology. The reformers have not yet been able to destroy the bonds between the American people and their community’s schools.

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By  |  11:32 AM ET, 08/22/2012

 
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