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PDK Poll Indicates Public’s Perplexed Perspective, Magical Thinking on Schools

August 31, 2016

Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Phi Delta Kappa’s annual poll on public education aptly titled “Same Old, Same Old”, concluding that

Nothing new except that Gallup is no longer the polling company. No headlines. The only obvious conclusion: the American public is confused about why we have schools and what they should be doing and whether they are doing it well.

After reading the Executive Summary of the poll I concur with Ms. Ravitch’s conclusion: Nothing has changed about the public’s perception and there does appear to be confusion about the purpose of schooling given the finding that “Less than half (45%) of adult Americans say preparing students academically is the main goal of a public school education, and just one-third feel that way strongly. Other Americans split between saying the main purpose of public schools is to prepare students for work (25%) and for citizenship (26%).“. But I did see a change in the language used by PDK, a change that seems to be leading toward a purely functional purpose for public schools:

“There’s a real question today about education’s return on investment. 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. Policy makers and leaders need to understand what their publics want from their schools,” said Joshua P. Starr, CEO of PDK International.

The phrase “return on investment” seems to imply the purpose of education is NOT purely academic: it’s to make certain that taxes spent on schools result in a tangible good that can only be measured in dollars. And the conclusion that “…parents and the public want to see a clearer connection between the public school system and the world of work” is not supported by the data in the survey where only 25% say the main purpose of schooling is to prepare students for work.

One other element of the survey that jumped out at me was the public’s magical thinking. Consider the inherent contradictions in these findings:

  • By the most lopsided result in the survey, the public by 84% to 14% says that when a public school has been failing for several years, the best response is to keep the school open and try to improve it rather than closing the school. But if a failing school is kept open, then, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say replacing administrators and teachers is preferable to giving the school more resources and support staff.
  • For the 15th consecutive year, Americans say lack of funding is the No. 1 problem confronting local schools.
  • More Americans support (53%) than oppose (45%) raising property taxes to improve public schools, but there is broad skepticism (47%) that higher spending would result in school improvements. If taxes are raised, there’s little consensus on how the money should best be spent. A plurality (34%) says it should go to teachers but divides on whether that means more teachers or higher teacher pay.

So if “lack of funding” is the number on problem, how could more funding NOT be the preferred solution to fixing a failing school? How could higher spending NOT result in school improvements? How could a substantial majority NOT support an increase in taxes? Maybe the public thinks they can get a better return without any investment… and maybe they believe in unicorns as well.


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