Yesterday President Barack Obama delivered a pep talk to America's schoolchildren. The president owes a separate speech to America's parents. They deserve some straight talk on the state of our public schools.
According to the just released Education Next poll put out by the Hoover Institution, public assessment of schools has fallen to the lowest level recorded since Americans were first asked to grade schools in 1981. Just 18% of those surveyed gave schools a grade of an A or a B, down from 30% reported by a Gallup poll as recently as 2005.
No less than 25% of those polled by Education Next gave the schools either an F or a D. (In 2005, only 20% gave schools such low marks.)
Beginning in 2002, the grades awarded to schools by the public spurted upward from the doldrums into which they had fallen during the 1990s. Apparently the enactment of No Child Left Behind gave people a sense that schools were improving. But those days are gone. That federal law has lost its luster and nothing else has taken its place.
It's little wonder the public is becoming uneasy. High-school graduation rates are lower today than they were in 1970. The math and reading scores of 17-year-olds have been stagnant for four decades.
You cannot fool all the people all the time, President Lincoln said. And when it comes to student learning, the public seems beyond deceit. When asked how many ninth graders graduate from high school in four years, the public estimated that only 66% of students graduated on time—slightly less than the best available scholarly estimates.
When asked how American 15-year-olds compare in math with students in 29 other industrialized nations, the public did not fool itself into believing that the U.S. is among the top five countries in the world. Those polled ranked the U.S. at No. 17, just a bit higher than the No. 24 spot the country actually holds.
In another sign of declining confidence, the public is less willing to spend more money on public education. In 1990, 70% of taxpayers favored spending "more on education," according to a University of Chicago poll. In the latest poll, only 46% favored a spending increase. That's a 15 percentage point drop from just one year ago when it was 61%.
But when it comes to actual dollars spent per pupil, Americans get the numbers wrong. Those polled by Education Next estimated that schools in their own districts spend a little more than $4,000 per pupil, on average. In fact, schools in those districts spend an average of $10,000.
One can understand the public's confusion on the dollar and cents question. Schools' money pots are filled with revenue from property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, gambling revenues, and dozens of other sources. It's not easy to add up all the numbers, and no one does it for the voter except the federal government, which manages to get the information out two years late. When those surveyed are told how much is actually being spent in their own school district, only 38% say they support higher spending.
The public also dramatically underestimates the amount teachers in their state are being paid. The average guess in 2007 was around $33,000—well below actual average salary of $47,000 across all states. When told the truth about teacher salaries, support for the idea that they should get a salary increase plummeted by 14 percentage points.
A presidential truth-in-spending address is definitely in order. Over $100 billion of the stimulus package went to K-12 education, doubling the federal contribution to school spending. A powerful public-school lobby will fight fiercely to keep federal aid to education at these historic highs. President Obama could head off such deficit-driving pressures by sharing accurate information about how much students learn, how much schools spend, and how much teachers are paid.
The president didn't hesitate to tell American kids to take responsibility for their behavior. It's time he delivered that same message to states, school districts and unions.