The 2008 Education Next-PEPG Survey of Public Opinion: Americans think less of their schools than of their police departments and post offices

William Howell, Martin West and Paul Peterson
Year of publication: 
Education Next

Americans clearly have had their fill of a sluggish economy and an unpopular war. Their frustration now may also extend to public education. In this, the second annual national survey of U.S. adults conducted under the auspices of Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University, we observe a public that takes an increasingly critical view both of public schools as they exist today and, perhaps ironically, of many prominent reforms designed to improve them.

Local public schools receive lower marks than they did a year ago. More significantly, perhaps, survey respondents claim that their local post offices and police forces outperform their local schools. Meanwhile, support for the most far-reaching federal effort to reform public schools—the No Child Left Behind Act—has slipped. A considerable portion of the public remains undecided about charter schools. And the poll found no enthusiasm for the use of income rather than race as a basis for assigning students to schools.

This does not mean that Americans are unwilling to explore alternate ways of educating young people. A large majority of Americans would let their child take some high school courses for credit over the Internet. An equally large majority favor the education of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in separate classrooms rather than “mainstreaming” them, as is common practice. A plurality support giving parents the option of sending their child to an all-boys or all-girls public school. And a rising number of Americans know someone who is home schooling a child.

These and other findings appear in the 2008 Education Next –PEPG survey, which once again examines the views of U.S. adults taken as a whole, as well as those of white, African American, and Hispanic subgroups. In addition to the opinions of respondents from different ethnic backgrounds, we take a special look at those of public school teachers. Responses for the public as a whole and for the subgroups are reported in the tables that follow. We have also posted responses to additional questions not discussed in this essay.

Before turning to the main findings, we note an innovation in this year’s survey: the increased use of survey experiments, which are rarely employed in national education surveys. By randomly asking respondents slightly different questions about the same issue, we were able to investigate whether adjustments to policies such as national standards, affirmative action, school vouchers, and tax credits could attract broader support. In most cases, the types of policy distinctions that loom large among policy experts have little impact on public opinion. But in one or two instances, most notably the purposes for which online courses might be used, policy changes elicited quite different levels of public support.