What do Americans think of the Nation’s Schools? How Widespread is the Support for Charter Schools?

Education Next (Ednext) and Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) both released their annual polls last week. (Disclaimer:  I am among those responsible for the Ednext poll).   Many of the questions asked are very different in the two polls, so direct comparisons of their findings are limited to only a couple of questions. But when it comes to evaluations of the nation’s schools and assessments of charter schools, they report results that are strikingly similar–despite that Ednext is an online poll (executed by Knowledge Networks), while PDK is a telephone poll (conducted by Gallup).

When rating the nation’s schools, only 18 percent of those surveyed in both polls gave the nation’s schools either an “A” or a “B” and, more than a quarter gave the schools a rating of a “D” or an “F.”  In both polls, grades are roughly the same as those reported by Ednext and PDK  in 2009. Never before have school ratings fallen to such low levels since the question was first asked back in 1981.  One can only wonder whether Americans are losing confidence in the nation’s schools.

To those interested in polling methodology, it is noteworthy that the two polls got the same result when they asked the same question.  Many pollsters are debating whether an online poll (used by Ednext) has now become superior to a telephone poll (used by PDK) on the grounds that people don’t answer their phone anymore.  My own view is that pollsters have refined their techniques to the point that either approach is pretty good, if the firm does its work carefully (as both Gallup and Knowledge Networks do).

Yet at first glance it appears that  PDK finds much more support for charter schools than the Ednext poll does.  According to PDK, 68 percent of the public “favor” charter schools, while only 28 percent oppose them, with just 4 percent having no opinion.  That is a major increase in support for charter schools since 2005, when, according to PDK, only 49 percent favored charters, and 41 percent stood in opposition.

Ednext finds lower levels of support for charters. Ednext finds 44 percent supporting charters, while the opposition was 19 percent.  The remaining portion– 36 percent—said they “neither supported nor opposed charter schools,” a little less than the 41 percent in 2008.

The difference between the results is more apparent than real, however. When posing the question, PDK gives the respondent only a choice of favoring or opposing charters, or saying they “don’t know,” while Ednext allows respondents to choose among five categories:  strongly support, somewhat support, neither support nor oppose, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose.  By allowing the person to choose “neither to support or oppose” charters, Ednext identifies those who are unsure of their opinion. By forcing respondents to choose between favor and oppose, PDK encourages those without strong convictions to choose one side or the other in order to avoid embarrassing themselves by admitting that they “don’t know.” Thus, Ednext found 36 percent of the respondents “neither supporting or opposing charter schools”, while PDK found only 4 percent saying they did not know.

But among all those having an opinion the two polls yield strikingly similar results:  69 percent of those with opinions in the Ednext poll supported charters, and 71 percent of those with opinions in the  PDK poll indicated they favored them.  So the two polls essentially agree after all.

But even though in essential agreement, the two polls complement each other.  On the one side, Ednext shows that a large portion of the public has no strong opinions about charter schools.

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But on the other side, the longer-running PDK poll identifies a 20 percentage point shift of opinion in a pro-charter direction over the past 5 years.

Marty West and I discuss the uptick in support for charter schools in 2010 Education Next-PEPG Survey in this video.

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