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Americans Want Public Schools to Provide Much More Than Academics, PDK Poll Finds

“The three R’s alone don’t cut it anymore,” announces a report released August 28 on the 49th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. In addition to solid academics, Americans want their schools to provide job training, more explicit focus on social-emotional skills, and “wraparound” services like health centers and afterschool programs. Respondents also want students to learn in diverse classrooms and are skeptical about vouchers and the value of standardized tests.

This year’s survey sought to learn more about last year’s discovery of a desire among the American public for schools to focus less on honors classes and more on career and technical education. The new data suggest that the public really wants both strong academics and job preparation, including classes focused on career skills, technology and engineering, and programs leading to a professional certificate or license. The less satisfied respondents are with their local schools, the more likely they are to say schools should offer more job/career skills classes.

Another nonacademic focus favored by most respondents is the teaching of interpersonal or social-emotional skills, which 82% of those polled rank as highly important for schools to provide. The same percentage identify technology and engineering classes as extremely or very important, while 76% name advanced academic classes, 71% art and music classes, and 70% extracurricular activities. In contrast, just 42% of Americans say standardized test scores are a highly important indicator. When asked to name the single most important factor for school quality from six options, most again chose the soft skills – phrased as “How well the school helps students learn skills like being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems” (see chart). Interestingly, despite the weak confidence in standardized tests, a majority of respondents say schools should not only assess students’ interpersonal skills but be held accountable for the results.

A whopping 92% of Americans say schools should provide afterschool programs, and other wraparound offerings like mental and general health services are also popular, at 87% and 79% respectively, for students who don’t have access to these services elsewhere. A majority of respondents (76%) also say schools would be justified in seeking additional public funding for these services, although the degree of support for public funding varies by political leaning, education level, and parental status.

The 2017 survey also asked about support for vouchers – that is, allowing families to send students to private schools at public expense. More than half (52%) of respondents oppose the practice, and even more (61%) oppose a more detailed question about funding “the partial cost of private or religious schools” with public funds. Yet only 54% of public school parents say they would still send their child to a public school if they had full-tuition vouchers; the number increased to 72% if the vouchers covered only 50% of tuition.

When asked about the value of racial and economic diversity in schools, 7 in 10 parents want their children to experience this diversity. However, most are not willing to lengthen the commute to school in order to get it – and the responses vary widely by demographic group (see sample table below and many others at pdkpoll.org).

The survey finds similar overall assessments of the nation’s schools to past results: “They’re most popular by far among those who know them best,” states the report. As usual, respondents give high grades to their local schools, especially current public school parents, 62% of whom give local schools an A or a B. Among the general population, 15% give local schools an A – the highest percentage in 40 years. Public schools nationally receive an A or a B from only 24% of respondents, a rate consistent with past results.

PDK International CEO Joshua P. Starr said the survey gives voice to the “silent majority” of “reasonable” Americans, revealing “a wide gap between what the most strident policy makers and reformers are advocat­ing and what the American public actually wants and believes.”

Published as a September 2017 supplement to Kappan magazine, the 49th annual poll is also available online at pdkpoll.org with a variety of related materials, including companion state-specific surveys in Georgia and New York. Researchers will be able to access the complete dataset in March 2018.

Source note: All images courtesy of PDK International

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