Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Poll join forces each year to solicit opinions of the state of public education in the United States. While I like to think of myself as a true optimist when it comes to education, I admittedly read the report each year with a bit of trepidation and apprehension. The results of the 2012 poll were released a couple of weeks ago, and this year's review was no different for me -- our schools need innovation, but what path do we choose when our own opinions seem to contradict each other. Here are just a few of the "highlights":
1. The Common Core Standards: we seem to care more about consistency than quality.
When asked about the Common Core (an initiative begun largely by governors and state school officials), 75 percent of Americans believe that the new standards "will provide more consistency in the quality of education between school districts and states." I want to highlight the word consistency. This question only asked about the consistency of the quality of education across districts/states, not the actual quality of the education. Apparently, a vast majority of us are fine with greater consistency, regardless of the quality. [In fact, the public was asked about the Core improving the actual quality of education, and 25 percent fewer Americans (i.e., 50 percent) agreed that they would improve the quality of education, while 40 percent said they would have no effect.] I find all of this interesting, in light of the fact that 70 percent of those polled said that there was a "great deal" of difference in the quality of public education from state to state; that's a lot of pressure on the Core to find that consistency.
2. Grading Our Schools: local schools do great, schools as a concept don't.
When asked to provide a grade (A, B, C, D, or Fail) to their local public schools, 48 percent of respondents (these questions were only asked of parents) gave an "A or B" (12 percent gave "A's" and 36 percent gave "B's"). More "impressively," when asked what grade they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 77 percent gave an "A or B." Interestingly, when asked to grade public schools nationally, only 19 percent gave an "A or B" (1 percent gave "A's" and 18 percent gave "B's"). Apparently, the grass is always greener... on my side of the fence!
3. School Choice, Charter Schools, and Parent Options: it seems we're in favor of all of them, except we also favor consistency.
When asked if they favored or opposed the idea of charter schools, two-thirds (66 percent) of respondents indicated that they were in favor of them. Similarly, respondents were asked to indicate whether they favored or opposed state laws (often, collectively referred to as "parent trigger laws") that allow parents to petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools (and, in most cases, replace the public school with a new charter school). Nearly three-fourths (70 percent) indicated that they were in favor of such laws.
Now, there are several issues, as well as my own opinions, that I could discuss related to parent trigger laws, but I want to point out a very interesting conundrum when we contrast these opinions with others I discussed earlier. By law, charter schools operate under a charter or contract that frees them from many state regulations that are imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently. So, roughly two-thirds of the poll's respondents indicated that they like the option of independently-run public schools; however, a very similar majority also indicated that implementation of the common core standards, and their related common assessments, will result in a greater consistency and quality in our schools. This seems to me to be quite an interesting contradiction: We apparently value an educational system where consistency and standardization are important, but that also allows for operation independent from standards and norms.
The authors of the poll report provide the following conclusion: "While there have been pockets of innovation, many schools function as they did 50 years ago." I couldn't agree more, and I'm not sure that the public sees this. Our nation's schools are in desperate need of true innovation, but how can the public lead this process when their opinions are diametrically opposed to each other. I believe innovations must be led from within the system; they must begin with our teachers and other professional educators -- those who know what it's truly like to be in today's schools.