New poll on public schools: Americans wary of testing, vouchers and Common Core

In its 47th Annual Poll of Public Attitudes toward Public Schools, the PDK/Gallup Poll released today found the recurring contradiction that while Americans harbor misgivings about public education in general, they give their local schools high marks.

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While respondents agree there is too much focus on testing, they divide over whether parents should be able to have their kid sit out tests.

In addition, Americans remain leery of vouchers; only 31 percent favor allowing students to attend private schools on the public tab.

Here is the official statement from the pollsters:

The public believes there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in their local schools but are split almost evenly on whether parents should have the right to excuse their children from such testing, a new survey shows.

Sixty-four percent say there is "too much emphasis on testing" and 41% say parents should be able to opt their children out of standardized testing. A majority (54%) oppose having local teachers use the Common Core Standards to guide what they teach.

However, blacks and Hispanics are somewhat more likely than whites to say that results of standardized tests are very important to improve schools and to compare school quality. Blacks also are more likely than whites to say that parents should not be allowed to excuse their child from taking standardized tests.

A strong majority -- about eight in 10 -- of the U.S. public believes the effectiveness of their local public schools should be measured by how engaged the students are with classwork and by their level of hope for the future.

These and other findings are included in the 47th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes toward the Public Schools. Conducted annually by PDK International in conjunction with Gallup, the poll is the longest-running survey of attitudes toward education and thus provides an extensive and trusted repository of data documenting how the U.S. public's views on public education have changed over the decades.

For the first time, the 2015 poll is able to report opinions among whites, blacks and Hispanics because of the addition of a web-based poll with a larger sample of 3,499 U.S. adults.

"By expanding our poll and disaggregating by demographics, we're now able to better understand and convey more deeply how different groups of Americans experience public education," said Joshua P. Starr, the chief executive officer of PDK International. "National survey results and averages are important, but they're a starting point for deeper conversation on why there are different opinions among different groups of Americans. Policymakers need to look at those differences."

Overall, with consistency, the U.S. public believes their local schools are doing a good job though they say they are underfunded; supports charter schools but not vouchers for private schools, and strongly opposes any federal role in holding public schools accountable.

While 57% of public school parents give their local schools an "A" or "B" for performance, that drops to just 19% when asked to rate public schools nationwide.

A majority -- 64% -- say parents should be able to choose any public school in their community for their child to attend. And if parents could choose any public school, they say their top priorities would be the quality of teachers, the curriculum, discipline and class size, not standardized test scores or successful athletic programs.

Nearly all adults nationally (84%) support mandatory vaccinations for students attending public schools.

When asked to rate the importance of knowing how students in local schools perform on standardized tests compared with students in other school districts, about one-third of blacks (31%) and Hispanics (29%) think comparisons with other districts are very important compared with 15% of whites.

When asked if public school parents should be allowed to excuse their child from taking standardized tests, 57% of blacks say parents should not be allowed to excuse their child. Among Hispanics, that margin is 45%. But among whites, 41% said "no" while 44% said "yes."

Overall, 54% of the public opposes teachers using the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach. However, 41% of blacks favor that approach compared with 21% of whites.

A majority of blacks -- 55% -- give President Obama a grade of an "A" or "B" for his support of public schools compared with 17% of whites.

"African-American children often end up in lower-performing and under-resourced schools and I think these results suggest an important segment of the black community thinks the federal government could do a better job than local and state governments in holding schools and educators accountable," observed Starr.

Nationally, 2015 is the 10th consecutive year in which the public identified lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing local school systems. U.S. adults are consistent in saying that the most important idea for improving public schools is to improve teacher quality; in 2015, 95% considered "quality of the teachers" to be very important, putting it at the top of a list of five options.

"The 2015 survey results highlight significant issues for education leaders, communities and policymakers," Starr concluded. "The public wants more state and local leadership on education issues; they want more effective teachers, and even if they don't like the brand name 'Common Core,' they want a strong curriculum that engages students in classes that aren't too large. The poll results make clear what the public wants; the question is whether policymakers and leaders will respond accordingly."

Starr, the former superintendent of the Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md., school systems, became CEO of PDK International in June. He succeeded William J. Bushaw, who retired after 11 years in the post. Starr holds a doctorate in education from Harvard, a master's degree in special education from Brooklyn College and a bachelor's degree in English and history from the University of Wisconsin.

PDK, a global network of education professionals, has conducted an annual poll with Gallup every year since 1969. The poll serves as an opportunity for parents, educators and legislators to assess public opinion about public schools. The latest findings are based on a web survey of 3,499 U.S. adults with Internet access plus telephone interviews with a national sample of 1,001 U.S. adults. Both surveys included a sub-sample of parents and were conducted in May 2015.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.