What the Public Wants From Its Schools

There is support for investing in public charter schools.

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Students take a test at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York in 2011.
Many states are struggling to train teachers for Common Core standards.

Last week, the Associated Press, Education Next (EdNext) and PDK/Gallup each released polls on Americans' views on a range of education issues. The surveys covered a lot of ground, but a few unifying themes emerged.

First, the public supports charter schools. These independently-managed but publicly-funded schools garnered a whopping 70 percent support in the PDK poll, up from less than 40 percent over a decade ago. (EdNext found similarly strong support; the AP didn't ask any questions on the topic). This is a byproduct of the schools' longevity (the first charter school opened more than 20 years ago), their success in attracting bipartisan support, and their status as public schools of choice. Perhaps most important of all, the recent body of evidence on charter schools shows that they are effective at raising student achievement. (Full disclosure: I am the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.)

Second, parents seem to support testing students, but the general public isn't keen to evaluate teachers on the basis of how students perform on tests. The AP poll shows that parents feel that their children are taking an appropriate number of tests and seem comfortable evaluating teachers based on student performance and EdNext finds that 80 percent of those surveyed supported attaching stakes to these tests – for instance, by holding back third graders who don't pass a reading test. But PDK finds that the general public doesn't seem as comfortable with these concepts and questions the validity of the tool in improving the overall quality of our schools.

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As for the topic du jour, the Common Core State Standards – an effort embraced by 45 states aimed at aligning state standards around a set of common metrics – was a mystery to most. Over 60 percent of respondents in the PDK poll and a majority of those in the AP poll weren't familiar with the term. By contrast, once the standards are defined as a tool to hold state's schools accountable for ensuring students are learning key concepts, EdNext found that 65 percent of Americans supported the Core, up from 63 percent in 2012.

As always, how the questions are asked and whom they are asking makes a difference. The AP poll captured the perception of parents with children in elementary, junior high or high school, PDK and EdNext used a representative sample of the general public, though EdNext oversampled parents.

The key takeaways for policymakers and people who care about school reform are that there's support for investing in public charter schools, testing should be treated not as a punitive tool but rather a diagnostic one, and there's a need to deepen public understanding about the Common Core. With school bells ringing across the country, policymakers should focus on advancing school reform strategies that have been proven effective and that enjoy broad support, especially from parents.

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