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Back to School Amid Change and Controversy. What Do Hoosiers Think About Public Schools?

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Dr. Raymond Scheele and Dr. Joseph Losco

Thousands of Hoosier children and young adults are already back at school.  But they enter a system awash in change and controversy.  These include more funding for charter schools, a change in the testing standards, the selection of a new test preparation company, reduced authority for the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, and a yet-to-be fully realized teacher shortage as educators consider alternative careers and the pool of recruits coming out of colleges dries up.

The changes brought to our public school systems over the past decade were meant to increase test scores, enhance teacher accountability, and provide parents with greater choices.  So far the results are decidedly mixed.  But how dissatisfied are Hoosiers with the public schools?  How widespread is the dissatisfaction with public education that precipitated the raft of changes that have been adopted?  The WISH-TV/Ball State Hoosier Survey provides longitudinal data over the past several years that can begin to answer these questions.

By and large, Hoosiers are highly satisfied with the public schools.  In 2010, the first year we asked about the state of public education, four out of five Hoosiers told us they were very or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education children were receiving in the public schools.  Parents with children in the public schools voiced the same high level of approval.  Satisfaction levels every year since have never dipped below 67% (2013).  Last year (2014) the number of Hoosiers satisfied or very satisfied with the local public schools stood at 74.5%.  The same high level of support permeates the entire state, though Hoosiers in the central counties of Indiana express slightly lower levels of approval.  The same high level of approval for public schools permeates the entire nation as shown in the recent Gallup/PDK survey on attitudes toward the public schools.

The results are unsurprising. We have known for some time that there is a difference between perceptions of institutions seen in the abstract and those experienced through personal interaction.   According to a Brookings Institution report, 47 percent of the public gave their local public schools a grade of “A” or “B,” in the 2014 Education Next survey, while 18 percent gave them a “D” or “F.”  When asked to rate the nation’s public schools, just 20 percent awarded an “A” or a “B,” and 24 percent handed out a “D” or “F.”

Some will argue that the public is deluding itself.  Their views reflect wishful thinking that the schools are producing students with higher achievement levels than actually attained.  However, Michael Henderson, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West showed in their study that Americans’ views of the levels of achievement in the public schools were quite accurate, falling within only one percentile difference of the actual average level of achievement attained by pupils in their local districts as measured by the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, which uses state test data to generate rough estimates of the national percentile rank of the average student in each American school district.

We should remember also that the public school is often the center of community, particularly in rural areas.  The school athletics teams bring pride to the community and the school facilities serve as a meeting place where residents can congregate to engage with each other.

Why then the handwringing about the public schools?  Certainly, standards and performance can and should be improved.  Just as certainly children from all demographics should be given the tools necessary to participate in the success of educational attainment.  But lawmakers should be wary of displacing an institution that enjoys such widespread public support.