Meeting of the Minds

William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West
Year of publication: 
Winter 2011
Education Next

Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., are more polarized today than they have been in nearly a century. And among the general public, party identification remains the single most powerful predictor of people’s opinions about a wide range of policy issues. Given this environment, reaching consensus on almost any issue of consequence would appear difficult. And when it comes to education policy, which does a particularly good job of stirring people’s passions, opportunities for advancing meaningful policy reform would appear entirely fleeting.

Against this backdrop, the results of the 2010 Education Next–Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) Survey are encouraging. With the exceptions of school spending and teacher tenure, the divisions between ordinary Democrats and Republicans on education policy matters are quite minor. To be sure, disagreements among Americans continue to linger. Indeed, with the exception of student and school accountability measures, Americans as a whole do not stand steadfastly behind any single reform proposal. Yet the most salient divisions appear to be within, not between, the political parties. And we find growing support for several strategies put forward in recent years by leaders of both political parties—most notably, online education and merit pay.

Nearly 2,800 respondents participated in the 2010 Education Next–PEPG Survey, which was administered in May and June of 2010 (see sidebar for survey methodology). In addition to a nationally representative sample of American adults, the survey included representative samples of two populations of special interest: 1) public school teachers and 2) adults living in neighborhoods in which one or more charter schools are located. With a large number of respondents, we were able, in many cases, to pose differently worded questions to two or more randomly chosen groups. In so doing, we were able to evaluate the extent to which expressed opinions change when a person is informed of certain facts, told about the president’s position on an issue, or simply asked about a topic in a different way.

Grading the Nation’s Schools

Americans today give the public schools as a whole poor marks. When asked to grade the nation’s schools on the same A to F scale traditionally used to evaluate students, only 18 percent of survey respondents give them an “A” or a “B.” This equals the percentage that awarded one of the top two grades in 2009, which had been the lowest level observed across the three years of our survey. More than one-quarter of respondents, meanwhile, continue to give the nation’s schools a “D” or an “F.” These sentiments are shared widely. Fewer than one-quarter of African Americans and Hispanics give the nation’s schools an “A” or “B,” as do just 18 percent of parents of school-aged children. Most telling, perhaps, only 28 percent of teachers give the nation’s schools an “A” or a “B,” while 55 percent give them a “C” and 17 percent a “D” or “F.”

However, as in the past, the public’s assessment of the local schools is far higher. No less than 65 percent of those surveyed are willing to give the school they identified as their local elementary school one of the two highest grades, and 55 percent are willing to give one of those grades to their local middle school. Only 6 percent assign their local elementary school a “D” or and “F,” while 12 percent assign those low grades to their local middle school.