What Americans say about…

Grading the public schools

Public schools get their highest grades from those who know them best: public school parents.

The survey offers this good news for public schools: They’re most popular by far among those who know them best. 

That conclusion stems from some of the PDK survey’s most long-standing questions. Sixty-two percent of public school parents give the public schools in their community an A or B grade, compared with far fewer nonparents (45%). When parents grade their own child’s public school, A or B grades go even higher, to 71%. (Twenty-two percent overall have a child in a public school.)

Forty-nine percent give the schools in their own community A or B grades.  That includes 15% A’s, the highest on record in surveys asking this question since 1974 when the response was 18%. While not significantly different from the past few years, it’s advanced from 9% in 2007, a six-point gain in local school ratings in the past decade.

The number of Americans who give their community's public schools an A grade is its highest in more than 40 years of PDK polling.

About one-quarter (24%) give public schools nationally an A or B (with no difference between parents and all adults). The 25-point gap between ratings of schools in one’s own community and schools nationally is consistent with more than three decades of PDK poll results.

There’s no contradiction in the gap. Awareness of a few poor schools can diminish the ratings of all schools together, driving down scores nationally while leaving local scores far better. 

Local schools are less well-rated in more densely populated areas. In the 10 most concentrated counties covered in the survey, 36% give their local schools an A or B grade. That rises to 44% in the next 40 counties by population density and 50% in all other, less-densely populated counties. (Similarly, just 46% in the most densely populated counties say their state evaluates local schools effectively, rising to 53% in the next tier of counties and 59% in those more sparsely populated.) 

Differences by socioeconomic status persist. Americans with household incomes of $100,000 or more are significantly more likely than those with lower incomes to give high marks to their community’s schools (60% vs. 46%). And parents in the top income category are even more positive about their own child’s school, with 84% awarding A or B grades; the same applies to parents who are college graduates, a close correlate of income, also at 84%.

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Biggest problem

Since 1969, the poll’s first question has been about the biggest problems facing the local public schools. As has been the case since 2002, the most common answers referred to lack of funding, cited by 22% this year. But that’s down from an average of 34% from 2009 to 2014, in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

In this open-response question, participants are able to volunteer anything they consider a problem facing their community’s schools. So, while 22% may seem small, when compared to responses on many other questions in this poll, having this many respondents name the same problem is substantial.

Web  Pdk  Poll 2017  C6  Graph1

There continues to be a wide margin between financial concerns and other issues, with all other answers in the single digits, led by items such as educational quality and standards, teacher quality, school violence, and drug use.

Funding is not a problem exclusive to less well-regarded schools. Twenty percent of those who give A grades to schools in their community cite funding as a top problem, as do 26% of those who give B’s and 23% of those who give their schools C’s and D’s.  

Seeing funding as a top problem peaks among college graduates, Democrats, liberals, and those with $100,000+ incomes, with about one-third of each group citing it as a big issue. Those without a college degree, Republicans, conservatives, and lower earners are less likely to cite it.  

Failing schools

When it comes to underperforming schools, Americans made clear in last year’s PDK poll that they would rather see a school stay open and improve than start from scratch — 84% vs. 14%, with fairly consistent results across groups.

But who’s responsible for that decision? In this year’s study, 48% say the local school district should decide what to do with a school that has had failing test scores for a number of years, rather than the state education agency (32%) or the governor (15%). 

Support for keeping decision-making power local — a common feature of public attitudes — is higher among public school parents than nonparents (53% vs. 47%). Fifty-two percent of both liberals and conservatives prefer local decisions. 

Nonwhites, those without college degrees, those with lower incomes, and adults younger than 50 are more likely than their counterparts to support giving the power to the governor, with the largest gap by income. Just 5% of those who make $100,000 or more say the governor should make the decision, compared with 20% of those earning less than $50,000.  

As for state control, statistical modeling shows that having a child in public school and saying that extracurriculars and advanced academics are important aspects of school quality are all negatively associated with preferring that the state education agency make decisions about failing schools.

The Questions

  1. Q. What do you think are the biggest problems facing schools in your community?
  2. Q. Students are often given the grades of A, B, C, D, and Fail to denote the quality of their work. Suppose the public schools themselves in your community were graded in the same way. What grade would you give the public schools here — A, B, C, D, or Fail?
  3. Q. How about the public schools in the nation as a whole? What grade would you give the public schools nationally — A, B, C, D, or Fail?
  4. Q. Using the A, B, C, D, Fail scale again, what grade would you give the school your oldest child attends?

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