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New poll finds declining public confidence in Uncle Sam’s education policies


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  • Ashley Kincaid/Phi Delta Kappa International

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The American public has sharpened its belief that the  federal government should not play a dominant role in public education, with a majority saying they  simply do not support initiatives that they believe were created or promoted by federal  policymakers, a new survey shows.

Moreover, only 27 percent of respondents give President Barack Obama a grade of “A” or  “B” for his performance in support of public schools – down from 41 percent in 2011.

New poll finds declining public confidence in Uncle Sam's education policies PDKGallup46PollHPA majority of  those surveyed, 54 percent, do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers; many do not  understand how charter schools work, and the number of Americans saying they are familiar with  the Common Core State Standards has skyrocketed in just one year, with a majority  saying they oppose the standards.

Those and other findings are contained in the 46th edition of the PDK/Gallup Poll of the  Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Conducted annually by PDK International in  conjunction with Gallup, the poll is the longest-running survey of American attitudes toward  education and thus provides an extensive and trusted repository of data documenting how the  public’s viewpoint on public education has changed over the decades.

“These findings present a serious dilemma for public education leaders,” observed William  Bushaw, chief executive officer of PDK International and co-director of the PDK/Gallup poll.  “Americans are less comfortable with the federal government’s role in public education but if the  federal government is less involved, who will put pressure on the public schools to close the  achievement gap, one of this country’s greatest challenges? Do local and state education leaders  have the capacity and resources to make this happen?”

The new survey suggests the American public has a lot more confidence in local school  systems than in the federal government.

Fifty percent gave their local schools a grade of “A” or “B”  and 56 percent said their local school board should have the greatest influence in deciding what  was taught. Only 15 percent thought the federal government should have the most influence.

Yet when the focus was shifted from the respondents’ own local schools to ask about the  performance of the nation’s schools in general, only 17 percent extended a grade of “B” or better to  America’s schools.

In another area involving U.S. educational performance, only 30 percent of those  questioned said they were familiar with last December’s release of the Program for International  Student Assessment (PISA), which is used to compare the performance of students around the  world. But even without knowing about the latest PISA results, 50 percent of those responding  believed that American students were performing below the level of other students around the  globe.

When asked a series of questions about standardized testing, the public generally  supported various specialized tests such as those used for college entrance and Advanced  Placement courses. But 54 percent of those questioned said they simply do not believe  standardized testing in the classroom really helps local school teachers decide what to teach.

Public school parents are even more negative about the value of standardized testing with 68 percent believing they are not helpful to teachers.

It was in the arena of the Common Core State Standards, however, that public opinion  showed the most dramatic change compared to the previous year.

The Common Core State  Standards are a state-led effort to establish higher learning standards for kindergarten through  12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. The standards are intended to prepare  more students for college and careers in the globalized 21st century economy. Originally adopted  by 46 states and the District of Columbia, the standards now are under fire in multiple states  across the country as an attack on local school control.

Last year, almost two-thirds of Americans had never heard of the CCSS. This year, 81  percent said they had heard about the CCSS and 47 percent said they had heard a great deal or a  fair amount.

What they’re hearing has led to opposition: 60 percent of those questioned said  they oppose the CCSS, with the biggest factor being a belief that the standards will limit the  flexibility of teachers to teach what they think is best.

Among those respondents who said they supported the CCSS, 74 percent cited the fact the  standards would “help more students learn what they need to know regardless of where they go to  school.”

“Given the increased media coverage this year, we were not surprised that an overwhelming majority of Americans have heard about the Common Core State Standards, but we were surprised by the level of opposition,” said Bushaw. “Supporters of the standards, and educators in particular, face a growing challenge in explaining why they believe the standards are in the best interest of students in the United States.”

More than 60 percent of survey respondents said they favor charter schools and 54 percent said they believe charter school provide a better education than other public schools. But when asked a series of questions to explore their knowledge about how charter schools operate, large segments of the public got it wrong, saying charter schools are private schools, allowed to teach religion, charge tuition and allowed to select students on the basis of ability.

PDK, a global association of education professionals, has conducted this poll with Gallup every year since 1969. The poll serves as an opportunity for parents, educators, and legislators to assess public opinion about public schools. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percent.

The latest findings are based on telephone interviews conducted in May and June 2014 with a national ample of 1,001 American adults, including a sub-sample of parents.

Additional poll data is available at www.pdkpoll.org.