The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do kids go to school? Americans are divided on the answer, a new poll shows.

(PDK International)
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What is school for? A new poll released Monday night shows that Americans are divided on the issue. And in an era when public education has been under attack, most public school parents still think highly of their children’s schools — and an overwhelming majority of Americans do not want failing schools to be closed down but would rather see them improved.

The 48th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, the longest continuously running survey of American attitudes toward public education, was commissioned by PDK International, a global association of education professionals that is headed by Johua Starr, former superintendent of the Montgomery County Public School District.

In an essay that is part of the survey, Starr said the results show that Americans are not especially satisfied with the direction of school reform in the No Child Left Behind Era under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Noting that the public doesn’t want failing schools closed despite that being a key part of the NCLB reform agenda, he wrote:

This finding, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the divide between the reform agenda of the past 16 years and the actual desires of the American public. When asked whether a failing school should be closed or improved, there is a 70-point divide between those who want to see closure (14 percent) and those who want to see it stay open (84 percent). If decreased enrollment isn’t driving a school consolidation and closing effort, school system leaders and policy makers should pay heed to what the public actually wants regarding failing schools.

PDK conducted the poll with Gallup every year until this year, when it was done by Langer Research Associates of New York. Results are said be nationally representative of Americans as a whole and subgroups, such as public school parents, and the poll is being published by PDK’s Kappan magazine.

Americans, asked to pinpoint the purpose of school, were divided. Is school supposed to prepare students academically? Or for the workforce? Or to be knowledgeable citizens able to participate in American civic life? This division has long been an issue in the world of education.

Less than half — 45 percent — of adult Americans say preparing students academically is the main goal of a public school education, and just one-third feel that way strongly, the poll found. Other Americans split between saying the main purpose of public schools is to prepare students for work — 25 percent — and for citizenship, 26 percent.

According to the report:

These differing priorities relate to how Americans rate their local public schools. Those who say public schools should mainly prepare students for work are less positive in their views; 42% in this group give their schools top marks vs. 53% of those who say the main objective is preparing children academically.
Putting a priority on academics peaks at 56% among parents with at least one child in public school, compared with four in 10 of those who don’t have a school-age child. Half of those between ages 30 and 64 pick academics, compared with 37% of both younger and older Americans, who instead are more likely to emphasize citizenship.
These different priorities for public schooling also are correlated with ideology and political partisanship. Fifty percent of conservatives emphasize academics vs. 43% of moderates and 40% of liberals. Liberals instead are more likely (33%) than moderates (24%) and conservatives (22%) to say schools should focus on building citizenship. Republicans are less apt than others to value a role for citizenship instruction in public schools. Rural residents (30%) are more likely than urban dwellers (22%) to see the school’s main goal as preparing students for work. Urban residents  (47%) are slightly more likely than rural residents (39%) to see the main goal as preparing students academically.

The division is nothing new in American life. As Starr noted in his essay:

An age-old question in education is what is the purpose of school. One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, said in his “Talk to Teachers” (1963), that the purpose of school is to “ask questions of the universe and learn to live with those questions.” Thomas Jefferson, the earliest champion of American public schools and a proponent of a decentralized system of locally run schools, believed public education was essential for a democratic citizenry. Horace Mann believed in common schools that promoted social harmony; John Dewey believed education was about teaching one to think critically.

Today’s perspectives are no different from those throughout our history; the American public does notagree on a single purpose for public education. The past 16 years have seen an over-reliance on student achievement on state standardized test scores as a measure of success. Whether Presidents Bush and Obama intended for standardized tests to be the de jure purpose of public education, they certainly have become the de facto purpose, as most school systems are organized to promote success on these measures.

Here are some other results from the 2016 poll:

•Two-thirds of public school parents give their child’s school an A (26 percent) or B (41 percent) grade, far better than Americans overall grade their local public schools or the schools nationally. Still, there is cause for concern: One-third of these parents assign their child’s school a lower grade, including 23 percent a C, 5 percent a D, and 5 percent a failing grade.

•Parents who give As and Bs to their local schools report that the schools communicate more effectively with them, give them frequent opportunities to visit and offer input, and are interested in what they have to say.

• By the most lopsided result in the survey, the public by 84 percent to 14 percent says that when a public school has been failing for several years, the best response is to keep the school open and try to improve it rather than closing the school. But if a failing school is kept open, then, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say replacing administrators and teachers is preferable to giving the school more resources and support staff.
• A majority of Americans (59 percent to 37 percent) opposes allowing public school parents to excuse their children from taking standardized tests. Opposition from blacks is even greater, at 67 percent opposed.
• Most public school parents (56 percent) say that new standards are changing what’s being taught in their child’s school, although one-third says there has been no change.
• For the 15th consecutive year, Americans say lack of funding is the No. 1 problem confronting local schools.
• More Americans support (53 percent) than oppose (45 percent) raising property taxes to improve public schools, but there is broad skepticism (47 percent) that higher spending would result in school improvements. If taxes are raised, there’s little consensus on how the money should best be spent. A plurality (34 percent) says it should go to teachers but divides on whether that means more teachers or higher teacher pay.

Here are some charts and graphs from the report

(Correction: Poll was done entirely by phone. Earlier version said some of it was conducted online.)