Mystery Poll Explained!

There is a lot of buzz about a new ETS poll examining what the public thinks about public schools. USA Today wrote it up on Monday, but ETS apparently has yet to post the actual poll on their site so there is a lot of head scratching going on.

USA Today’s Toppo writes that:

The percentage of parents who give U.S. public schools a grade of A has dropped from 8% in 2001 to 2% today, and only 20% of parents give schools a B, down from 35%. Meanwhile, 45% of parents give schools a C, up from 33% in 2001.

Beware, there is less to these findings than meets the eye. Across a range of issues the public tends to view things in the abstract less favorably than concrete examples they interact with regularly or ones close to home. This is, for instance, why Congress as an institution rates poorly but individual members rate much better. In education this means that overall perceptions of education matter less than what the public and parents think about schools in their communities. Polls consistently show (with one important exception, more on that in a moment) that parents rate the schools in their communities more favorably than schools overall. That’s the number to watch.

And, in this poll (Eduwonk’s had a look) there is nothing to indicate that those numbers don’t hold up. In fact, again, parents rate their own schools much more favorably (67 percent ‘A’ or ‘B’ in the ETS poll) than the general public does schools overall or than parents do schools overall. There is some movement on the numbers in the middle, (more C’s, fewer B’s, so much for grade inflation…) but no great shakes. One interesting finding tucked in there: The public seems increasingly to understand that public schools overall, and particularly affluent public schools, are not failing, but that low-income schools are in big trouble. That’s a healthy development because it’s a perception backed up by the facts.

The exception is minority parents. They give their own schools less favorable ratings than do other parents (in general, Eduwonk didn’t see specific data on that question in this poll). What No Child Left Behind is doing is documenting empirically why they feel this way, and that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable for a lot of reasons…

ETS says the poll is evidence that either candidate can frame an effective message around education. Probably not because: (a) Bush can’t claim too much credit since he has not followed through on NCLB well, (b) Kerry has to be careful attacking it, and (c) the public does not vote education in national elections anyway

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