A Divided Public: 2012 PDK Poll on Public Education

Uncertainty and disagreement characterized a large portion of the general public’s attitudes toward education issues, according to the recent 2012 Phi Delta Kappan’s annual Gallup poll. Among the major highlights, the public is divided about whether:

  • Teachers should be evaluated based on student standardized test scores (52% favor; 47% opposed)
  • Parents should receive vouchers to help pay for their children to attend private schools
  • Children of undocumented immigrants should receive a free public education
  • Common Core standards will improve the quality of education (50% yes; 40% not much effect)
  • High school graduates are college-ready
  • Our local schools are better than the nation’s school as a whole
  • Obama or Romney can positively influence public education in America (49% Obama; Romney 44%)

President Obama has a slight edge in terms of being perceived as positively influencing public education, but the public seems to believe that the Democratic Party is more interested in improving public education (50%) compared to the GOP (38%).

Though a majority of Americans (51%) oppose providing free public education for children of undocumented immigrants, the opposition has declined since 1995, when 67% were opposed. It also fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting free education more.

In terms of support for local public schools, 77% of parents give their local schools  gave an A or B grade, while almost half gave a C to the nation’s public schools as a whole.

A significant portion of Americans are not sure that high school students are ready for college (43% said neither agree or disagree), and only one-quarter think they are. 29% were similarly unsure about college students’ readiness for work (40% said they were).

Interesting Trends and Side Notes

Out of the random adult samples who participated in the poll, 67% did not have children in school, 27% were public school parents, and 62% had at least a college education. Two thirds were over the age of 40, and were split pretty evenly among political parties (28% GOP; 36% Democrat; 35% Independent).

Charter school support has steadily increased over the decade (70% in favor in 2011), no surprise due to media attention like the documentary Waiting for Superman; however, it has declined for the first time, dropping to 66% this year. With the increasing scrutiny of charter school effectiveness, perhaps the novelty effect has worn off.  Overall, more people oppose using public funds, or vouchers, to finance private schools (55%) than favor (44%), though support increased ten percentage points from last year (34%).

Despite the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) decade, education as a priority has curiously dropped. In 1996, a large majority (64%) believed that improving its quality was more important than balancing the federal budget. However, with the economic recession and the resulting bipartisan dispute in Congress recently, the priorities have switched, with only 38% of Americans in 2012 believing education is more important than balancing the budget (60%).

With so much focus on teacher effectiveness, one poll question asked about teacher qualities that had the most positive influence in people’s lives. Two new characteristics popped up that was not present in 2010: “Strict/tough/discipline” and “challenging/demanding.” This appears to coincide with the steady march towards the “no excuses” accountability, even though accountability has been spotlighted for the past few decades. Regardless, “caring” and “encouraging” remained the top two qualities people value in the best teachers–something for policymakers to keep in mind as they refine education reform.


However, there is still some consensus on certain issues:

  • 97% believe it’s important to improve the nation’s urban schools, and would be willing to pay more taxes to make that happen (though falling along party lines; GOP 41% in favor, Democrats 80%.
  • 89% also support closing the recognized achievement gap between white/Asian students and Black/Hispanic students.
  • Bullying prevention should be part of the school curriculum (78% in favor).

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln once said. The uncertainty that the poll reveals mirrors a growing polarity in American politics over the economy, healthcare, education and other social issues–a reason to be wary about America’s future, and perhaps a chance for our leaders to take collaboration seriously.

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