History of the poll

Curiosity leads to 51 years of listening to Americans

This year, we celebrate 51 years of the PDK poll.

By Joan Richardson

What became the PDK poll grew out of a casual office musing — and not by anyone working at PDK.

Chuck Kettering and Ed Brainard were in their 30s, working in Denver, when they came up with the idea of doing a national poll to discern what Americans believed about public education. A single phone call to pollster George H. Gallup secured his affiliation with the project.

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Over the years, that germ of an idea has generated decades of polling to learn what Americans have to say about the public schools. Nearly 70,000 Americans have been queried on more than a thousand different questions — in 2019, we have added another 2,389 Americans and 61 questions to that long list. In five decades, the questions have included everything from curriculum, standards, and testing to abortion, sex education, and drugs. Anything that touches on what happens in U.S. schools has been fair game for the PDK poll.

“For years, the PDK poll stood alone. It was like a skyscraper in the prairie. Today, the field is filled with skyscrapers, but, for a long time, the PDK poll was the only one. Now, there’s more than enough information, and the struggle is to be heard above the cacophony of voices,” said Jack Jennings, a longtime PDK member and longtime general counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee.

PDK intends to continue producing the poll. “We consider the poll to be one of the signature pieces of work by PDK,” said Joshua P. Starr, the organization’s CEO. “The poll is the most trusted source of public opinion about K-12 education because of our track record of asking the hard questions and sharing the results — all of the results — whether we personally agree with the responses or not. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the voices of Americans are heard on these important topics.”

“If government is supposed to be based on the will of the people, then somebody ought to go out and find what that will is.”

George H. Gallup

How the poll began

The pair who got the ball rolling met in the late 1960s when Kettering was new to Denver and interested in learning more about the local schools. Brainard, who was then director of research for Jefferson County Schools, offered to take him on a tour of Denver schools.

The two hit it off, and Kettering soon offered Brainard a job as president at CFK Ltd., a foundation that Kettering had created in 1967 with his family money. CFK’s primary interest was funding innovative educational research.

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Chuck Kettering and Ed Brainard

The two men landed on the idea of doing a national poll after reading a journal article about a cost of education index. As they chatted with their secretary about the index, they agreed that school administrators would benefit from having solid information about what the public thought about its schools.

“Our original plan was to make it useful to principals, superintendents, and teachers. We had less emphasis on the broad policy questions that came up later in the poll,” said Brainard, 87, who still lives in suburban Denver.

Although Kettering and Brainard were equally responsible for developing the idea of what became the PDK poll, Kettering brought the resources and connections that ultimately made it a reality.

Kettering was formally Charles F. Kettering II, the scion of a wealthy industrialist family. His grandfather, Charles F. Kettering — often known as Boss Kettering — invented the electric ignition and self-starter that made it possible for cars to move without hand cranking. The elder Kettering founded Delco Electronics and was the head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. A prolific inventor, he eventually had 186 U.S. patents and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in January 1933. His personal scientific curiosity led the elder Kettering to invest his personal fortune in education and research. He helped found what became the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City and Kettering University (formerly the General Motors Institute) in Flint, Mich.

His namesake shared his grandfather’s interest in education but, perhaps more important, the younger Kettering saw how education could leverage a new future for disadvantaged people.

“He had a great interest in looking into the inner cities and trying to improve the educational model there. He thought blacks in this country were really being put down, and he wanted to help them up,” said his son, Charles F. Kettering III. “He was a do-gooder. He liked to help people.”

In a tribute to Chuck Kettering following his death in a car accident in 1971, the Kettering Foundation noted that he “spent much of his time striving to rectify inequities and indignities as he saw them” (Daley, p. 9). During his years as a vice president of education at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, he launched the Institute for Development of Educational Activities (known as /I/D/E/A/) “to develop new objectives, new programs, new structures, and forms of organization in order to energize and institutionalize change in American education” (Daley, 2001, p. 5). John Goodlad, then dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, was director of research for /I/D/E/A/.

As the Kettering tribute noted, “he also would go beyond the reach of any institution to personally extend his support and understanding” (Daley, 2001, p. 9). “He was a man of courage, a man with soul, a man with empathy for disadvantaged people” (Daley, 2001, p. 10).

With his own money, Chuck Kettering helped finance the creation of Prescott College in Arizona, a college that was intended to have a social justice orientation. He spent time working in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during the 1960s, funded projects that enabled street gang members to film their own stories, and gave $250,000 to a Chicago street gang, the Blackstone Rangers (sometimes known as the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation), for a legal defense project.

In spite of his family’s wealth, Chuck Kettering never thought of himself as anything special, his son said.

“We never lived a lifestyle that was out there. He made sure we went to public schools. He believed in public schools.”

Chuck Kettering filled in as a substitute teacher in Denver-area public schools as a way to get closer to what was happening in the schools. His son started his career as a high school business teacher and tennis coach in the Cherry Creek (Colo.) School District.

Brainard had a more typical background for an educator of his era. After teaching junior high school in Billings, Mont., he used the GI Bill to pursue graduate degrees in education. At age 27, he became principal of a 1,400-student junior high school in Jefferson County, Colo. He was on the faculty at Kansas State University before being offered the chance to return to Colorado as director of research in Jefferson County. He was in that position when he read a Denver Post article about a new arrival in town who wanted to learn more about the public schools.

In a 1973 book about the first five years of the poll, Kappan editor-in-chief Stanley M. Elam called Brainard “an educator and PDK member whose enthusiasm, organizational abilities and fund of ideas were all essential to the poll’s success” (Elam, p. viii).

By the time Kettering and Brainard came up with the idea for a national poll on education, the younger Kettering had had something of a falling- out with his grandfather’s foundation. A new executive director was taking the foundation in a different direction than the one supported by the family. But the younger Kettering had his own source of family money and used that to set up the CFK foundation in Denver and to launch the initial national poll on education.

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George H. Gallup

However, thanks to his membership on the board of his grandfather’s foundation, Chuck Kettering knew George H. Gallup, the renowned American pollster. As Brainard tells the story, it took Kettering only one phone call to convince Gallup to sign on to do the first national poll. Within a short time, Brainard, Kettering, and Gallup met in Gallup’s Princeton, N.J., office and sketched out the first set of 55 questions drawing on their own knowledge of education and suggestions they gleaned from conversations with educators they knew. With that, they set a pattern that the PDK poll follows to this day: creating a panel of advisers to guide PDK in developing the poll questions.

By phone and the U.S. mail, the trio went over drafts of the questions. “We added to and subtracted from, that was all part of the process,” Brainard said.

Six weeks later, the poll was done, and in-home, face-to-face interviews of 1,505 American adults began.

Even as they were launching the first poll, the trio imagined an annual poll and designed the initial 55 questions with that in mind. In the introduction to the poll report, Gallup wrote that “Benchmarks have been set to enable change to be measured in the years ahead.”

“An important objective of the study was to learn how typical citizens judge the quality of education in their local schools — the criteria they use in arriving at a judgment as to the excellence — or lack of it — in their local school systems,” Gallup wrote.

“Leaders in American education must possess a keen awareness of public attitudes toward what is going on in the schools. They must be sensitive to changes in these attitudes, for change there is, and it is surprisingly rapid.”

George H. Gallup, October 1970

Making the PDK connection

Kettering and Brainard printed no more than 150 copies of the first 95-page poll report and sold them through /I/D/E/A/ for $3 a copy.

Kappan was one of the few publications to run an article about the results. Editor-in-chief Stanley M. Elam’s article filled barely a page of the November 1969 Kappan. Brainard, who had been a member of PDK International since joining as a graduate student in 1958, saw the article and shared it with Kettering and Gallup.

“We called Stan and said if you release it in its entirety (next year), you can have it. We knew others would pick it up if it was in Kappan. He agreed right away,” Brainard said. Kettering was already very familiar with PDK since the Kettering Foundation had donated $70,000 to PDK in 1966 while he was leading the foundation’s education programs (Elam, 1973, p. vii).

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The first complete PDK poll was published in the October 1970 issue of Kappan magazine. Elam joined the trio in developing questions for the second year.

Three years after Chuck Kettering’s death, CFK Ltd. ceased operations. For a time, the Kettering Foundation in Ohio funded the national poll. But, after about a decade, that support dried up. The Ford Foundation and the Lilly Endowment provided temporary support, but eventually the PDK Educational Foundation became the sole financial backer of the poll.

Brainard continued his involvement with the poll through his work with the poll advisory group through the 1979 poll. Gallup was the sole author of the poll until his death in 1984; he died in Switzerland while writing the report for the 16th annual poll. His son, Alec M. Gallup, carried on the work of the PDK poll until his death in 2008.

Looking back, Brainard is proud of the lasting contribution that he and Kettering made to understanding how Americans view the nation’s public schools. But he does harbor one regret.

“Grading the schools was my idea. I want to tell you that that was a mistake. It was used to hammer schools and that was never the intention. I’m sorry to say that grading the schools is an oversimplification,” Brainard said.

Joan Richardson is the director of the PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.


Daley, R.E. (2001). Charles F. Kettering II and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Columbus, OH: The Kettering Foundation.

Elam, S.M. (1973). The Gallup polls of attitudes toward education, 1969-1973. Bloomington, IN: PDK International.