PDK/Gallup Poll: When Answers Mean More Questions

featured on the Learning First Alliance website, August  25,  2014.

This is the 46th year for the annual PDK/Gallup Poll, a survey that wants to know what the public thinks about their public schools. As usual, there is a lot to absorb from the responses to the questions, and the answers raise more questions that must be answered. Because the poll revisits questions asked in previous years, it is a window to changing opinions about public schools. This year’s poll suggests that Americans aren’t sure they like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or even that the federal government should be involved in public schools. Everyone interested in improving public schools, and especially those who consider themselves “reformers”, should pay close attention to this poll – because public education is not something that is “done” to people. The people speaking are the people who own and pay for public schools and whose children are being educated in them. What they think and what they want matter.

Among the 33% of Americans who favor CCSS, they do so because these standards will help children learn what they need to know regardless of their zip code. Common Core was initiated as a way to bring consistently high standards to public schools across the country and to make sure that the quality of a student’s education does not depend on zip code or state.  For the 60% of Americans who oppose CCSS, the biggest reason is that it will limit the ability of teachers to teach what they think is best. While more Americans have heard of Common Core (over 81%) than in the past, there is misinformation in the mix about what CCSS means. Most educators support Common Core and understand that it does not dictate the curriculum of schools. Common Core State Standards provides a set of standards that reflect what American students need to know in order to be internationally competitive and ready for college. Schools are still free to choose and develop their own curriculum to reach these goals. If parents understood this, would they still be opposed?

If many educators support CCSS but public school parents and the public at large do not, there is a significant communications gap between the public, parents and schools. In the poll, only 23% of public school parents learned about CCSS from teachers or other education professionals. Another 22% learned partly through school websites or other newsletters. But 38% learned about CCSS from television, newspapers or radio. Given that there is so much opposition to CCSS that is tied to politically charged information, chances are good that many parents do not understand Common Core. They could benefit from correct information and from communication with teachers and schools. Teachers are in the best position to communicate to parents a vision of what rigorous academic standards mean to students in terms of classroom learning, skills and knowledge, and preparation for college and careers. There are few parents who would actually fight for lower standards for their children.

Closely tied to Common Core is the question of how standardized testing is used in public schools. Over half of Americans said standardized tests aren’t helpful to teachers, and an even higher percentage of public school parents agreed. And yet, when asked about the effectiveness of tests used for specific purposes, like college entrance tests and tests to award college credit for Advanced Placement courses, the percentage of support was much higher. This suggests that the public and parents are willing to use some testing for specific and targeted reasons, but they do not support the high-stakes testing that has become a hallmark of the current accountability system. Parents do not want their children reduced to a test score. Nor do they want excessive classroom time devoted to test preparation. They want to see well-rounded schools that are creative and innovative and that offer music and the arts.

The PDK/Gallup Poll speaks clearly about Americans’ high regard for their local public schools, accompanied by a lower opinion of the nation’s schools. Consistent over the last few years, this shows that information makes the difference. Parents know a lot about their local schools, but when they do not personally know schools, they give them lower marks. And yet every school is someone’s local school. In the same vein, most Americans believe their local school board should be the governmental body with the most influence in decision-making about what is taught in schools. Parents and the public seem to be weighing in on the role of local school boards versus state and federal intervention. Their current opinion on schools and governance seems to be “the closer, the better.” This data indicates that parents and the public need to know more about overall school governance and needs beyond their own children’s school. Surely this would help them in their perception of the correct balance among local, state and federal government.

This year’s poll also asked about charter schools and vouchers. In the case of charter schools, a majority supported charter schools but also indicated a lack of real understanding about them. For example, the public was divided on whether charter schools are public schools, and almost half believe that charter schools are free to teach religion. What difference would correct information mean in their opinion of charter schools?

As always, many things can be learned from this year’s poll, and one of them surely is the need for the public to pay attention to the issues of public education and to have correct information on which to base their opinions. How many people know that academic standards across the states have varied widely, with some states not imposing high standards for their students prior to CCSS?  How many know that CCSS is not a curriculum and that local schools may still develop their own curriculum and way of teaching? Does the public understand the current accountability system and how standardized tests are used? Does the public understand that CCSS has been passed by 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity? The question in most schools is not whether there will be Common Core or not. The question is how it can be implemented successfully with the appropriate time, resources, support and professional development for teachers. Parent support is critical to its success.

This year’s poll shows the need for schools to reach out to parents and the public to make sure they have the correct information about issues that impact public schools and students. It also shows the need for parents to be engaged as partners with educators and for the public to support public schools. When parents and schools work together, everybody wins. When communities support their public schools, those schools excel.

The people at PDK/Gallup got it right when they said that based on this year’s poll, we must either modify the plan for higher standards or we must communicate information that will build support for high standards for all students. Which will we do? That is the question that is brought on by the answers. Now the public must answer that question!