48th Annual PDK Poll: Americans are Divided on the Role of Public Schools, Importance of Career & Tech Ed vs. Academics

dreamstime_m_6081119For nearly a half-century, Phi Delta Kappa (PDK), a professional educators organization, has released a nationwide poll this time of year that attempts to capture the American public’s attitudes toward public education.

This year’s poll reveals Americans are divided on a host of bedrock education issues, including the goals of education, standards, funding and more.

Most adults continue to think highly of their community’s schools—48 percent give their local schools and “A” or “B” grade compared to just 24 percent for public schools nationally. The percentage of Americans who give positive grades to the nation’s schools is up 7 points since 2014, while grades for local public schools have remained steady in recent years.  The gap between the two is the smallest it has been since 2008.

Parents of public school children were more positive about their local public schools than Americans as a whole.  Two thirds of public school parents give their child’s school a grade of “A” (26 percent) or “B” (41 percent).

The most lopsided finding was that an overwhelming majority of Americans do not want struggling schools to be closed down but would rather see them improved. By 84 percent to 14 percent, Americans said that even 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 shut it down. However, if a failing school is kept open, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say replacing the teachers or administrators in the building is preferable to giving the schools more resources and support staff.

On the issue of the role of education (what school is for), only 45 percent of respondents said the main goal of public education should be preparing students academically, while 25 percent said the main purposes is to prepare students for work and 26 percent said good citizenship. When given a direct choice, 68 percent said it was better for their local public schools to have more career and technical or skills-based classes than more honors or advanced academic classes.

Socioeconomic status plays big role in attitudes toward public schools—57 percent of Americans with an annual household income over $100,000 gave their schools an “A” or “B” compared with 42 percent of those earning less than $50,000 a year.

Those who say public schools should mainly prepare students for work are less positive in their views—42 percent in this group give their local schools top marks versus 53 percent of those who say the main objective is preparing children academically.

Support for prioritizing academics peaks at 56 percent among parents with at least one child in public school, compared with only 40 percent support among those who don’t have a school-age child. While half of those aged 30 to 64 pick academics, compared with 37 percent of both younger and older Americans, who are more likely to emphasize citizenship.

Priorities for public schooling are also correlated with ideology and political partisanship. Fifty percent of conservatives emphasize academics compared with 43 percent of moderates and 40 percent of liberals.

Other findings:

  • For the 15th consecutive year, Americans say lack of funding is the number one problem facing public schools.
  • More Americans support (53 percent) than oppose (45 percent) raising property taxes to improve public schools, although there is considerable skepticism (47 percent) that higher spending would produce school improvement. If taxes are raised, there is little consensus about how the money should best be spent. A plurality (34 percent) says the increased funding should go to teachers, but divides on whether it should go toward hiring more teachers or raising teacher pay.
  • By a margin of 59 percent to 37 percent, a majority of Americans opposes allowing public school parents to excuse (opt-out) their children from taking standardized tests.

The PDK poll is the longest continuously running survey and has been assessing public opinion about public schools every year since 1969. The 2016 survey is based on a random, representative 50-state sample of 1,221 adults interviewed by cell or landline phone—in English or Spanish—in April or May of this year.

Sources:  PDK Poll, Washington Post, various other sources