In my column last Friday, I mentioned a peculiar paradox: that Americans think public schools nationwide are terrible — except for the ones their own kids attend. (This is not so different from Fenno’s Paradox, which refers to American attitudes toward Congress vs. toward their own congressperson.)

For several decades, Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup has been surveying Americans about their attitudes towards public education. Three separate survey questions ask respondents to give grades — A, B, C, D or “fail” —  to denote the quality of schools. One asks about public schools “in the nation as a whole,” another about public schools “in your community,” and the last about “the school your oldest child attends.”

Here are the shares of poll respondents who give a grade of “A” or “B” to each of the questions.  Responses for the question about “the school your oldest child attends” refer only to parents of kids who attend public school; the others refer to the full sample of poll respondents:


Source: Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

A few observations: People are generally happy with the public school their own kids attend, though A and B grades have fallen from their peak of 79 percent in 2011 down to 67 percent today. Public school parents consistently view their own kids’ schools better than respondents overall view schools in the “community,” and substantially better than public schools nationwide. Note also that the numbers bounce around over time a bit, but appraisals of public schools in the “community” have generally been trending upward since the early 1980s.

As I mentioned in the column, other poll questions suggest that Americans believe the quality of public schools nationwide is declining. Here’s another question that’s asked more intermittently:


Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll.

This perception appears to be at odds with other available datapoints reflecting the quality of public schools, however. Long-term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (as well as other indicators like dropout rates and high school enrollment in calculus classes) suggest that at the national level, public school outcomes are improving.