What Do Americans Believe About Schools?

By William J. Bushaw
September 2014, Volume 38, Issue 1

School principals are on the front lines of transforming education in America, so it’s vital that they understand research-based data on how Americans perceive their schools. That makes recent data from the 46th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools important reading for all education leaders.

The PDK/Gallup poll remains the most respected opinion poll of public education in the United States. This year, polling data were reported in two segments, one appearing in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, the second in October. Both reports are available at pdkpoll.org.

The second report—covered in this article—highlights Americans’ beliefs about the preparation and evaluation of teachers; their acceptance for change in their public schools; the affordability of college; and how parents perceive the schools their children attend.

Teacher Preparation & Evaluation

Americans support investments in teachers and teacher quality, including higher entrance requirements to become a teacher, at least a year of supervised practice teaching before new teachers have a classroom of their own, and board certification similar to what most doctors must achieve.

Fortunately, many of the ideas strongly supported by Americans are already in progress. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation recently began implementing new rules that will set minimum academic standards for students entering a university’s school of education. More than 100,000 U.S. teachers have already earned national certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The Future Educators Association provides comprehensive approaches to recruit first-rate high school students to become teachers, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has endorsed a performance assessment developed by Stanford University—built on national certification and likened to a bar exam—to determine whether candidates really are ready to teach on day one.

The public also believes that performance evaluations are important to help teachers improve, or, in some cases, to document those educators who are ineffective. But the public does not believe these evaluations should hinge on the standardized test scores of a teacher’s students.

Other Findings

More Americans than ever support changing the curriculum of the schools in their community, and they believe these changes are more needed at middle and high school levels than elementary schools. On the other hand, Americans are ambivalent about changes to the school calendar, such as adding more days of instruction or lengthening the school day. They are slightly more supportive of a shortened summer break with longer breaks at other times of the year.

In the questions directed just toward public school parents, results indicate that parents are positive about their schools. Parents believe that the schools their children attend provide them with substantially higher levels of well-being, and encourage positive relationships with friends and family members and greater levels of community involvement. Parents were less positive when asked if schools teach children to manage finances more effectively, and not surprisingly, parents are less certain that they will be able to pay for their child’s college education.

Finally, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that children of undocumented immigrants must be admitted to public schools in the United States, PDK/Gallup is tracking Americans’ opinions on the issue. This year, the poll found that Americans are becoming increasingly supportive of providing public school services to children of undocumented immigrants.

Working Together

Although the PDK/Gallup poll on education focuses on Americans’ attitudes and opinions from a national perspective, opinions differ from community to community. Therefore, we encourage school leaders like you to apply this research in the context of parents and other members of your local community. By leveraging the network of NAESP leaders, we have the opportunity to leverage this public opinion data in ways that will positively transform American public education.

William J. Bushaw is PDK International chief executive officer & co-director of the PDK/Gallup Poll.

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