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August 26th, 2011
09:59 AM ET

School days look (a little) better closer to home

by Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Much as Americans grumble about Congress, but then re-elect their own representatives, they also complain about the nation’s education system while feeling pretty good about their own local public school and teachers.

Americans may be uncertain about whether teachers should be paid more, but they certainly think better of teachers and principals than they do of school boards – and parents (looking in the mirror?).

The Census Bureau tells us that an estimated 55.5 million children, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, will be enrolled this fall in nearly 100,000 public and more than 33,000 private schools (which educate 11 percent of those students) and will be taught by more than 7 million teachers.

As these children hoist their (often swollen) backpacks and return to school, it’s worth considering results of the recently released 43rd annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll, a survey of 1,000 American adults conducted in June that is a trove of attitudes about public education.

The results indicate that, to say the least, Americans are of a mixed mind on the subject. For example, 51 percent gave their local public schools a grade of A or B, but only 17 percent gave the same marks to public schools nationally.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Assistant Secretary of Education who now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think-tank, noted a particular set of numbers: “Respondents were also asked to grade the teachers, principals, and school board in their own community. Here again, teachers fared best: Sixty-nine percent of respondents would award their town’s teachers either an A or a B versus 54 percent for principals, and a meager 37 percent for the school board. . . . Parents—interestingly—rank the worst: A discouraging 36 percent of respondents would give their communities’ parents top marks for 'bringing up their children.'"

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed in the PDK/Gallup Poll said they have “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools.” Looking to the future, “Three out of four Americans say they want high-achieving high school students to become teachers, and two out of three would want their own child to become a teacher.”

As for paying teachers more money, 55 percent of the public are supportive in general, but only 43 percent agree when informed that the average teacher salary nationally is more than $54,000, according to another survey, this one by Educationnext and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

If you want to read a more detailed profile of the nation’s teachers, including their attitudes toward the education system, check out this study by the National Center for Education Information.

Back to the PDK/Gallup Poll for a few more noteworthy items. Asked to identify the biggest problems facing public education, school funding topped the list (44 percent), followed by overcrowding, lack of discipline and lack of parental support. Slightly more than half of the respondents acknowledged that their local school district has a hard time finding qualified teachers. Nearly half felt that teachers unions have hurt the quality of public education in this nation. And more than two-thirds said they hear more good than bad about teachers from the news media.

On another controversial topic in the world of education, 70 percent of those surveyed approved of charter schools, the highest mark since opinion on that issue was sought beginning a decade ago; support being strongest among Americans younger than age 40 and Republicans. But while “Americans increasingly support choice – allowing students and parents to choose which public schools to attend . . . regardless of where they live . . . vouchers received the lowest approval rating in the past 10 years,” with only one-in-three in favor of allowing students and parents to choose to attend a private school using public dollars.

Data from two years ago, the most recent available, found that New York state spent the most money per pupil on public education, $18,126 per student; Utah the least, $6,356. Despite this spending gap, Utah ranked ahead of New York in reviews of state proficiency standards for reading and math by both the above Educationnext and federal Education Department.

The Educationnext analysis of state proficiency standards for 4th and 8th graders determined that Massachusetts, Missouri and Washington had the most rigorous reading and math standards in 2009, while Tennessee, Nebraska and Alabama had the least rigorous.  The top states were similar in the federal Education Department analysis.

As to how American students compare with their counterparts in other nations, Educationnext reports: “Results from a new study of student achievement show that U.S. students rank 32nd among industrialized nations in proficiency in math and 17th in reading. The 32 percent of U.S. students who achieved proficiency in math compares to 75 percent of students in Shanghai, 58 percent in Korea, and 56 percent in Finland." [Note: In both reading and math, the highest performing state was Massachusetts.]

That study is sure to generate even more discussion of how best to educate our children and reform the nation’s education system.


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