Public/Private Debate on Schools Is Not Where the Public's At

By Richard M. Long

The public has demanding expectations for its schools. The strategies dominating education policy conversations won't meet them.

The 49th annual PDK Poll of the Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools reveals a public that defines the quality of education beyond the 3R’s of a bygone age. And certainly, despite much of the rhetoric at the national level, they don’t see issues as simply as private vs. public. 

In reviewing the poll findings, it becomes clear that public has demanding expectations, and that simple answers such as more testing or sending public money to private and/or religiously affiliated schools will not address what the public considers to be the important aspects of quality. 

Measuring School QualityGraph of 2017 PDK Poll Results on School Quality

There is significant consensus on measuring school quality – the public sees the extent to which a school helps students develop the interpersonal skills of cooperation, respect and problem solving as the most significant factor in school quality. Ranked second is offering technology and engineering classes to help students prepare for careers in those fields, and third is offering advanced academic classes. On the other hand, considerably fewer rate standardized test performance as important in measuring a school’s quality. 

The implications of these findings are significant. The public sees schooling as part of the process of preparing for life, which includes the ability to work with others. Additionally, one of the purposes of schools is to be integrating academics into career as well as college. We no longer see a public viewing education as two separate tracks of programs, but as an institution that integrates both.

Wrapping Support Around Children Who Need It Most

Across all demographics, the vast majority of people believe that a quality education includes access to afterschool programs, mental health programs, and health services for students who don’t have access to them elsewhere. 

Why? These three areas are examples of how public schools have already become the go-to institutions for most Americans when they want to see improvements and change for children. They want their schools to continue to shift from the institutional model of the 1920’s to flexible organizations working to support the development of a wide range of abilities AND to meet the needs of families to help their children in a complex world.

Graph Showing 2017 PDK Poll Results on Career EducationPreparing Students for Life After High School

As mentioned above, the public wants schools to prepare students for life after high school, including career preparation and education. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that schools are to change their classrooms into wood shops; it means that the academics need to be maintained AND the “shops” need to be integrated into the program. The findings also pointed to the need for academic credit and certifications to have some value and mobility.

Valuing Diversity

One key area of consensus in this poll is aspirational. The American public believes that diversity in their schools is important.

The challenge is that it is unclear how much discomfort people are willing to accept to make it a reality in their own communities. The question, as asked by PDK, offers room for some interesting interpretations. One is that the data indicates that African-American parents are more willing to accept a longer commute for their child to attend a diverse school than white or Hispanic parents. They are also much more likely to say having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds is extremely or very important, and to recognize the impact of that diversity on the learning environment. One possible rationale is that diversity, for them, means having schools with a significant number of students who are white; and having schools with a significant number of white students can mean more spending on schools, which would then be good for their child. In some contrast, the concept of diversity for Hispanics parents is less clear. One explanation could be that the Hispanic community already has a wide range of diversity within it. 

Additional Thoughts

To bring this short piece around to the elephant in the room, does the public think public schools are doing a good job? The findings are clear: those who know more about their public schools tend to rate public schools higher than those who know less. In addition, as more information is shared about what it would mean to move public money to private schools—including (for the first time in a PDK poll) religiously affiliated schools—support for doing so goes down. 

Looking at the data, it seems that the public wants schools that are much more comprehensive than simply institutions that focus on test results. They want schools that help to take care of a wide range of the needs children have, including mental health services. Additionally, while they know that diversity is important, it remains a vague notion to most. Anne O’Brien’s post explores this issue.

Ultimately, the PDK Poll provides the public and the policy making community with a deeper insight into many issues. Its purpose isn’t to offer conclusions; rather, it provides us with an informational basis to continue to explore and discuss what it will take to create quality schools. This it has accomplished. Now, can we focus on what is important?


Access the complete results of the PDK Poll at Images from the Poll report.