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New Poll Shows Perceptions of School Quality at All-Time High While Support for Reforms Declines

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Rachel White, a postdoctoral fellow/research associate at USC's Rossier School of Education. 

Other than a hot cup of coffee, a good, sweaty run, and snuggles with my two dachshunds, there is not much that I enjoy more than the release of fresh, new public polls about education issues. Unlike coffee, runs, and snuggles with Gus and Bear, the release of education poll results happen much less frequently—but, nevertheless, the 2017 EducationNext poll results are here!

This year, EducationNext provided a neat little interactive tool to look at polling-data trends for a number of questions that have been asked for over a decade. While I could discuss these trend data for days, in today's blog, I wanted to share just a few results that I find quite interesting.

First, the percentage of American's giving both their local public schools and public schools in the nation as a whole a school-quality rating of "A" or "B" is the highest it's been since the inception of the EducationNext polls (2007).

Now, it's possible that you are not at all enamored by these results. Understandably so—the public's perception of school quality is still pretty low: Three out of four Americans still give public schools in the nation a school-quality rating of "C" or worse.

However, I find it peculiar that, while school-quality ratings are at an all-time high, public support for some of the most recent federal, state, and local education-policy reforms is on the decline. For example, public support for annual standardized testing in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school is at an all-time low. For five years now, the general public's support for charter schools has deteriorated. The popularity of merit pay has been on a steady decline since 2014.

In short, as public support for some of the educational reforms that have been put in place in recent years has declined, the public's perception of school quality has increased. This inverse relationship is quite curious to me. How could this be?

One explanation could be that the general public does not perceive there to be a direct relationship between school quality and recent education-reform efforts.

Or, perhaps the public does perceive a relationship between school quality and the enactment of recent education-reform efforts but their perception of public-school quality have increased despite declining support for education reforms. Maybe this suggests that the public is satisfied with the way that schools are going about implementing recent education reforms, even if the reforms on their face are not popular.

Or, maybe these peculiar results are related to the survey question design. The EducationNext survey questions simply asks, "What grade would you give the public schools in your community?" and "How about public schools in the nation as a whole? What grade would you give them?" Relatively recent polling data from the 2014 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll suggests that many Americans are unclear about how charter schools function: 48 percent of Americans didn't know that charters were public schools (they are), and 57 percent thought charter schools charged tuition (they cannot). Similarly, results of a 2017 AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found that one in three respondents did not know enough about charter schools to answer a question on charter-school quality. Therefore, I can't help but wonder how those answering the EducationNext poll question interpreted the term "public schools" within these two survey questions. Did survey respondents answer the school-quality question with just traditional public schools in mind? If so, then it seems reasonable that the public's perception of school quality could increase while their support for charter schools has declined. However, this is a peculiar result if survey respondents answered the school-quality questions with all public schools—including charter schools—in mind. (This is where I would veer off on a long discussion of the importance of conducting qualitative research to try to tease these things out...but, alas, word limits.)

I am interested to hear your thoughts and how you are digesting these results that show a positive trend in perceptions of school quality (to a decade-long all time high!) and negative trend in support for recently enacted education reforms. Please do share!

—Rachel White

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