Until we get rid of funding inequities, real education reform can’t happen

The sad reality is that the quality of our public schools has always been subject to the tax dollars that can be raised in the neighborhood they serve.

Learning Leadership column, Sept. 2012 edition of eSchool NewsEvery year at this time, I look forward to the release of the Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Given the apparent dissatisfaction that many Americans have toward public education, the poll results might shed some light on why—and what we as public educators might be able to do about it.

I am immediately drawn to the section that asks the public to grade the public schools. Over the last 20 years, the results have been very consistent on two levels. First, and very much to my liking, the percentage of respondents who have a child in school and give their school a grade of A or B continues to grow. This past year, the number was at 77 percent, significantly higher than it was 20 years ago when the number was 64 percent. What does that tell us? Our public schools are being pounded as being of low quality and dysfunctional and not as good as they used to be. Yet, for those who are direct consumers of what the schools have to offer, parents with children in the school, satisfaction with the public schools is at an all-time high.

Second, when the public at large is asked to grade the school in their community, whether they have children in attendance or not, the results are also consistent in that there has been a continuous increase in satisfaction over the past 20 years. Currently, 48 percent of the public gives the school in their community a grade of A or B. That’s certainly not as impressive as the 77-percent approval rating by parents, but 20 years ago the percentage was 40 percent and it has been increasing steadily over the years.

Here’s the clinker. When asked to rate the public schools in the nation as a whole, only 19 percent of respondents give the schools an A or B rating. But 20 years ago, it was 18 percent! Not much change. There has been steady and significant improvement in how parents with children in school and how residents view their community schools—but attitudes toward our public schools in general has been low and flat for 20 years.

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For the last two years, I have been reporting how the performance of our public schools today is the best that it has ever been. Graduation rates are the highest ever, and dropout rates are at an all-time low. Reading and math results on the fourth and eighth grade NAEP (the “Nation’s Report Card”) are the highest ever. Parent appreciation of this performance seems to be reflected in the growing level of satisfaction with their schools, but the general public’s attitude remains negative and unchanged. What, then, is the reason for the disparity between the facts as reported in the PDK/Gallup Poll and the pernicious attacks on our public schools today? Let us return to the poll results.

To know a school is to like it. The further away we get from actual experience with schools, the less we like them. We can speculate that it is media accounts of failing and dysfunctional schools that continue to keep the general public’s attitude toward schools flat for the past 20 years, in spite of steadily improving performance. Movies like Waiting for ‘Superman’ have for years depicted the plight of inner city schools. Are you old enough to remember Blackboard Jungle and Up the Down Staircase back in the ’50s and ’60s?

The sad reality is that the quality of our public schools has always been subject to the tax dollars that can be raised in the neighborhood they serve. Yes, there are outliers that defy the basic formula, but generally, the higher the concentration of poverty, the lower the achievement levels. Consequently, we have always had a substantial achievement gap between the wealthier suburban school districts and our rural and inner-city school systems.

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