Changes in the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools

By Anne O’Brien, Learning First Alliance

Change is hard – something that those in the education community may know better than most. Whether it is changing a school culture, a child’s life prospects, policymakers’ thoughts on accountability, or voters’ minds on a bond referendum, educators are constantly on the lookout for evidence that they are succeeding as change agents. Sometimes that evidence seems scarce, particularly at a national level, as policymakers push education in ways we don’t always like and rhetoric indicates that we are to blame for a great number of society’s problems.
So as I read through the results of the 44th annual Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, I was on the lookout for evidence that we are succeeding in changing the conversation around public schools in this nation. And I was pleased to see that (while not always in the direction I personally would advocate) American’s views on public education are evolving.

The Biggest Problem Facing Schools

The first question asked on the poll each year is an open-ended one: What do you think are the biggest problems that the public schools of your community must deal with?
Over the past ten years, there has been a big shift in the public’s perception of the challenges schools face. In 2002, discipline (including fighting, gang violence and drugs) was the most common response, given by 39 percent of participants. Just 14 percent of Americans gave that response today. This year, a lack of funding was the most common response, given by 35 percent of participants.

School Quality

Another change I found surprising – and somewhat encouraging – relates to perceptions of school quality. Americans (particularly parents) seem to have improving opinions of their local schools. In 1992, 40 percent of respondents graded the schools in their community an A or B. In 2012, 48 percent did. In 1992, 64 percent of parents gave the school their oldest child attended an A or B. In 2012, 77 percent did. And in 2012, 0 percent of parents gave their oldest child’s school a failing grade (down from 4 percent in 1992). While ideally all these numbers would be higher, it is encouraging that communities do not seem to be losing confidence in their schools, particularly given the increasingly negative rhetoric about schools from policymakers, the media and certain “education reformers.”
In fact, one area of stability that I was surprised to see was in response to the question: What grade would you give the public schools nationally? Back in 1992, 18 percent of respondents graded the nation’s schools an A or B (and 48 percent gave them a C). In 2012, 19 percent graded them A or B (and 47 percent gave them a C). There was a peak in 2002, when 24 percent of respondents graded them A or B (and 47 percent gave them a C), but over time and despite the negative rhetoric, I find it fascinating how steady these numbers have been.

Policy Issues

Public opinion has also shifted on a number of policy issues. For example, in response to whether they favor or oppose providing free education, school lunches and other benefits to the children of immigrants who are in the country illegally, 67 percent of poll participants in 1995 answered that they opposed this idea. In 2012, just 58 percent answered in that manner – still more than half, but the tide appears to be turning.
There is also evidence of a discouraging change of opinion as regards national priorities. When asked whether balancing the budget or improving the education system is more important to accomplish in the next five years, just 25 percent of 1996 respondents said that balancing the federal budget was more important. 64 percent said that improving the quality of the education system was. In 2012, just 38 percent said that improving the quality of the education system was more important. 60 percent said balancing the federal budget was.
Other policy issues that have seen shifts in public opinion include:

  • Age of compulsory education. In 1972, just 42 percent of respondents would require students to attend school until age 18. In 2012, 63 percent would.
  • Support for charter schools. In 2008, 51 percent of respondents favored charter schools, while in 2012, 66 percent did (though this is slightly down from 2011 and 2010, when 70 percent and 68 percent, respectively, favored the idea of charters).
  • Support for vouchers. In just one year, the percentage of respondents who favor allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense (school vouchers) has increased from 34 percent to 44 percent.

Some Things Never Change

While public opinion has changed in some areas in recent years, there are also areas in which it has stayed the same. For example, in 2006, 88 percent of respondents felt that it was very or somewhat important to close the academic achievement gap. 89 percent of respondents feel that way today. In 1998, 96 percent of respondents felt that it was very or fairly important to improve the nation’s urban schools. 97 percent of respondents feel that way today.
And encouragingly, the nation is consistent in its confidence in its public school teachers – in 2010, 2011 and 2012, 71 percent of respondents reported that confidence.

The Ultimate Takeaway

There are certainly many aspects of this poll that I have not addressed (for example – are you interested in the public’s opinion on the Common Core? The poll includes it). But in general, as an advocate of public schools (traditional public schools in particular) who has been frustrated with both policy and rhetoric in recent years, I see a great deal of hope in these poll results. Despite efforts to denigrate the public education system, public opinion is holding strong – or even slowly growing – when it comes to local schools and teachers.
The poll does illustrate some of the many challenges that education advocates face, including changing opinions on national priorities and alternative educational experiences. But overall, it also shows that no matter how hard it seems at times, change in public opinion is possible.
Photo courtesy of BigStock.

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