What Parents Think: Insights from New PDK/Gallup Poll
By Joshua P. Starr
August 2015, Volume 38, Issue 12
The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools gives practitioners an opportunity to seize the narrative about what truly matters in schools. School leaders should take comfort that poll respondents, especially public school parents, value the real work of improving teaching and learning. However, school leaders should understand the significant differences in attitudes about the public schools among different demographic groups. For the first time this year, the PDK/Gallup poll disaggregates results by white, black, and Hispanic respondents. School leaders must be very attentive to those differences as they implement strategies that improve outcomes for all students.
The good news—and a consistent finding for many years—is that public school parents grade their oldest child’s school and their local schools much higher than the nation’s schools as a whole. Seventy percent of parents give their oldest child’s school an A or B, and 57 percent award an A or B to their local schools, but only 19 percent say the nation’s school deserve an A or B. This means principals might be in a stronger position than perhaps the national rhetoric suggests.
Yet, parents also value choice. Of public school parents, 67 percent favor letting students choose any school in the district, and 64 percent favor charter schools. So, while parents may think highly of their local school, they also like options, which means school leaders must be constantly marketing their school and its benefits.
We also learned that many public school parents do not value standardized tests. Whether they’re being used to evaluate teachers, communicate the effectiveness of a school, or seen as a school improvement lever, many parents believe there is too much emphasis on testing. Thus, school leaders must determine what other data can be used to tell the full story of a student, a class, and a school. Importantly, white parents de-emphasize the importance of tests, and black parents place more value on the results. Thus, principals must engage with parents of a variety of perspectives and not make assumptions.
Perhaps most important, parents value teacher quality as a strategy for improving schools. No one in a school system is more responsible for teacher quality than the principal. Principals must embrace the opportunity and the accountability that comes with ensuring excellence for every child every day, and parents are clearly demanding it.
We also found this year that respondents measure the effectiveness of schools by whether students are engaged in school and have a sense of hope for their future. While this may make intuitive sense—and is certainly becoming an issue of increased interest—measuring engagement and hopefulness is hard to do and to communicate. School leaders must look hard at how students are engaged day to day in the classroom and beyond. Incorporate student voice into school improvement work where appropriate, and ensure that teachers have culturally responsive materials and confront their implicit biases so that all students feel valued.
On Parent Engagement
Principals of diverse schools must be very attentive to the multitude of perspectives within their schools. Parents of different backgrounds and ethnicities deserve opportunities to be equal partners on school improvement teams or PTAs. In my 10 years as a superintendent of very diverse districts, principals lamented that typically white middle-class parents dominated formal parent involvement structures, despite the often herculean efforts of school leaders to engage all parents. Being culturally proficient and finding new ways to listen to, value, and engage parents of all different backgrounds and perspectives is essential.
Ultimately, this year’s PDK/Gallup poll reinforces what educators know in their guts: If we focus on the whole child; ensure top-quality teachers; communicate our stories, success, and progress in multiple ways; and engage with families in authentic ways, Americans will continue to have confidence in our schools.
Joshua P. Starr is chief executive officer of the PDK International Family of Associations.
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