Expert opinion

PDK poll results indicate support for a broader, bolder approach to education

by Elaine Weiss

The public sees clearly the impacts of poverty, want schools to mitigate those impacts, and would allocate resources to make that happen.

This year’s PDK International poll results, which come as the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) winds down after a nine-year campaign, indicate that BBA’s push to acknowledge the impacts of poverty on students and schools has been a successful one. As the former national coordinator of BBA, I am heartened by the responses and hope that they will be taken seriously by those shaping education policy and practice at this critical juncture. 

According to the 49th annual survey of the US public’s attitudes toward public schools, not only do the majority of those polled understand that our schools are doing a good job in the face of tough obstacles, the closer people are to those schools, the more they appreciate them. Americans also understand what BBA and our allies have been emphasizing: that schools cannot do it alone. Partnerships and community engagement are necessary to tackle the poverty-related impediments to teaching and learning that millions of children and teachers face every day. Finally, unlike many of the policymakers who determine how schools function and what they focus on, the public has a broader and deeper perspective on the most important goals and practices for schools and students.

While only about one in four people polled give the nation’s public schools as a whole an A or B grade, nearly half rate their local schools that highly, whether or not they have children in them. (And that share climbs to nearly two-thirds when public school parents are surveyed.) But when the question asks about the respondent’s own oldest child’s school, nearly three-fourths (71 percent) give the school an A or a B. In other words, the more you see for yourself what goes on in your child’s school and what the teachers, nurses, counselors, and principals who work there do every day, the more strongly you support it.

The public also seems to understand the consequences for schools of high rates of student poverty and associated disadvantage. Some of the largest majorities of all the questions back supports for children who would otherwise lack them. These include mental health services (87%) and after-school enrichment programs (92%). Moreover, three-quarters of those polled say that public money should be allocated to enable schools to provide these supports. They may not know it, but these respondents are backed by decades of solid research. Achievement gaps with respect to test scores and high school graduation rates have their roots in early childhood disadvantage and in family and community poverty. 

Which is why ensuring that all children have the enriching pre-K, after-school, and summer experiences that my daughters can take for granted is so critical to narrowing those gaps. Public opinion also tracks teachers’ and principals’ pointed assertions that even the best educators are severely limited when their students are too stressed or hungry to focus, or chronically absent due to preventable illnesses. Support for health care in school would thus go a long way toward further narrowing gaps. 

I appreciate Josh Starr’s decision to add this new series of questions about wraparound supports to the poll. They could not be more timely; with more than half of U.S. public school children now eligible for free and reduced-price meals, this is one of the most critical issues our schools face. 

As Starr and others note, these poll results indicate a sharp divide between education policymakers -– especially those currently running the U.S. Department of Education –- and the American public. The public does not believe that our schools are “failing” –- as both President Donald Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos have frequently asserted. Nor do they see vouchers as the solution for those that are struggling. Rather, they see clearly the impacts of poverty, want schools to mitigate those impacts, and would allocate resources to make that happen. Here’s to hoping that policymakers and practitioners take these results seriously, and that key discussions about the direction of America’s public schools start to shift to reflect them.

Elaine Weiss

Elaine Weiss was the National Coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) from January 2011 to June 2017, where she worked with three cochairs, a high-level task force, and multiple coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.  

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