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Survey: No agreement on role of public schools, but preference for career-tech over tougher academics

The Georgia General Assembly has long appeared conflicted on the role of public education. State lawmakers were among the earliest in the country to begin deriding public schools as "government schools" as a means to promote school choice. At the same time it proclaimed support of Georgia's public education system and its teachers, the Legislature spent a lot of time and money plotting escape routes out of the schools.

That ambivalence has spread to the public, according to the latest results from the annual Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

The responses underscore the challenges facing public schools today, which are under pressure to produce more college-bound graduates. But the survey finds greater endorsement of schools focusing on career-technical or skills-based classes rather than more honors or advanced academic classes.

The public tilt toward career-tech is interesting because a college degree remains valuable currency in terms of lifelong earnings and quality of life. I wonder if the intense media focus on soaring college costs has made parents more skeptical of the value of a college degree.

What do you think?

Here is the official summary:

There is no consensus within the American public about the role of the nation's public schools, with fewer than half saying that academic achievement should be emphasized instead of preparing students for work or to be good citizens, a new survey shows.

Only 45 percent of the adults responding to the annual survey say the main goal of public education should be preparing students academically. Indeed, when given a direct choice, 68 percent said it was better for their local public schools to have more career-technical or skills-based classes than more honors or advanced academic classes.

By an even bigger majority, the public also says that when a public school is failing, the best approach is replacing the teachers and staff while keeping the school itself open. The survey further found school administrators could improve their schools' standing with the public if they did a better job of communicating with parents and provided more opportunities for input.

Those and many other educational issues were highlighted today with the release of the 48th annual edition of the Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Previously the PDK/Gallup poll, the survey now is produced for the association by Langer Research Associates of New York.

"The American public does not agree on a single purpose for public education," noted Joshua P. Starr, the chief executive officer of PDK International. "And that's despite the emphasis on academic achievement of the past 16 years. This tells me that the standards and test-based reforms of the Bush and Obama administrations have addressed only part of what the public wants."

In general, in what has been a defining trend for decades, the American public gave good marks to their own local schools in 2016. Forty-eight percent give their local schools an "A" or "B" grade compared to just 24 percent for public schools nationally. Within those totals, socioeconomic status played a big role: 57 percent of Americans with an annual household income over $100,000 gave their local schools an "A" or "B" compared with 42 percent of those making less than $50,000 a year.

Among other findings, some reflecting contentious debate:

•By the most lopsided result in the survey, the public by 84 percent to 14 percent says that when a public school has been failing for several years, the best response is to keep the school open but replace the teachers or administrators in the building.

•The public splits 48 percent to 46 percent when asked whether charter schools should meet the same educational standards as other public schools or set their own.

•The public divides 43 percent to 43 percent on whether schools should use more traditional teaching and less technology or more technology and less traditional teaching.

•A clear majority - 59 percent to 37 percent - opposes allowing public school parents to excuse their children from standardized testing.

•It's a closer call as to whether Americans support or oppose raising property taxes to try to improve the public schools - 53 percent in favor compared to 45 percent opposed. Another question found broad skepticism that higher spending would achieve its goals, even though 2016 marked the 15th year in a row that a plurality of Americans cited a lack of money as the top problem facing local schools.

The divide over what public schools should be trying to achieve has been growing for a number of years, Starr said. While 45 percent of respondents said the main goal of public education should be to prepare students academically, 51 percent said the focus either should be on preparing students for work (25 percent) or preparing them to be good citizens (26 percent). When asked about competing ways to improve public schools, 68 percent supported the addition of more vocational and career classes as opposed to more honors or advanced academic classes.

"There's a real question today about education's return on investment," Starr noted. "While we know that a college degree is essential in today's economy, parents and the public want to see a clearer connection between the public school system and the world of work. To build community support for change, school leaders can't neglect the demands of federal and state accountability, but leaders must remember that they serve their communities first."

The survey responses offer some clear guidance to school administrators who want to improve the standing of their local schools. Ratings for local school are far higher among parents who think their schools communicate with them effectively and provide frequent opportunities for their input. But in many cases, the parents say that's not happening.

Fewer than half of parents (47 percent) say their local school does a good job of providing opportunities for their input. And a substantial four in 10 say their school does not offer enough opportunities for them to "visit and see what's going on."

There's also some variation in the degree to which Americans describe various objectives as important and how well they think their local schools are meeting those objectives. For example, 90 percent of parents say it's "extremely" or "very" important for schools to help students develop good work habits, but only 31 percent say their schools do an excellent or very good job of accomplishing that objective. Similarly, 82 percent consider it extremely or very important that schools prepare students to think critically across subject areas, but only 29 percent think that's happening.

"Not surprisingly, satisfaction and involvement go hand in hand," the survey concludes. "Parents who rate their schools positively on keeping them informed, inviting them to visit, offering them opportunities to provide input and showing interest in their input are more apt to feel involved with their child's school overall."

PDK has surveyed the American public every year since 1969 to assess public opinion about public schools. The 2016 survey is based on a random, representative 50-state sample of 1,221 adults interviewed by cell or landline telephone -- in English or Spanish -- in April and May of this year. Additional poll data are available here. The margin of sampling error for the phone survey is ±3.5 percentage points for the full sample, including the design effect. Error margins are larger for subgroups such as parents of school-aged children.

PDK International, the publisher of Kappan magazine, is a global network of education professionals that provides learning opportunities, targeted networking and relevant research to its members, deepening their expertise and ultimately helping them achieve better results in their work.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.