Americans Weigh in on Improving Schools

by Frank Newport

Changes to teaching, funding desired

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Education does not appear with great frequency when Americans are asked to name the number one problem facing America today. Education also does not appear at the top of lists when Americans are given a series of issues and asked which ones will most affect their vote for president.

Still, the two major presidential candidates have devoted considerable time and effort to the issue of education and schools.

President George W. Bush talks at length about what he perceives to be the positive benefits of the No Child Left Behind Act passed during his administration in 2001, while Democratic candidate John Kerry's Web site proclaims, "Education is at the core of America's basic promise."

Despite the negative press that education receives in some quarters, 79% of parents are satisfied with the level of education their son or daughter is receiving in school, according to an August Gallup Poll.

At the same time, Americans give a considerably lower rating to schools more generally (i.e., not just their child's school). The August Gallup Poll showed that 53% of Americans are satisfied with the quality of kindergarten through 12th grade education students receive today.

Education is in fact one of those issues about which the average American has a good deal of personal experience. Most adults have gone through an educational system him or herself to some degree, and many either have had children in schools in the past or are currently parents of school aged children. Additionally, of course, since education is a field in which there is a considerable amount of local control, many citizens of all ages are involved in issues relating to property taxes and the funding of education.

So it is of interest to look to the people for their suggested solutions for education's problems today.

Gallup asked Americans to respond to the following question in their own words:

Just your opinion, what would be the best way to improve kindergarten through 12th grade education in the U.S. today?

2004 Aug 9-11

%

Quality teachers/better educated/more involvement/caring

15

Reduce number of children in classroom

11

Back to the basic curriculum (reading, writing, arithmetic)

10

Improve school funding

7

Better pay for the teachers

6

More parental involvement

6

Better discipline in schools

5

Hire more teachers

5

Improve standards for testing

2

Stop the government from running schools/get rid of No Child Left Behind

2

More schools/improved schools

2

School vouchers

2

Teach more about real life/how to survive

2

More resources in the schools for teaching

1

Year round schooling

1

Better security/safer schools

1

Spend more time in school

1

Get rid of/abolish teachers' unions or the NEA

1

Put God back in school

1

 

Other

7

None

2

No opinion

10

One way to look at these data in more detail is to group the responses into categories, as follows:

Just your opinion, what would be the best way to improve kindergarten through 12th grade education in the U.S. today?

2004 Aug 9-11

%

Teaching

28

Quality teachers/better educated/more involvement/caring

15

Better pay for the teachers

6

Hire more teachers

5

More resources in the schools for teaching

1

Get rid of/abolish teachers' unions or the NEA

1

 

Funding

21

Reduce number of children in classroom

11

Improve school funding

7

More schools/improved schools

2

Better security/safer schools

1

 

Curriculum

18

Back to the basic curriculum (reading, writing, arithmetic)

10

Teach more about real life/how to survive

2

Put God back in school

1

Better discipline in schools

5

 

Testing

4

Improve standards for testing

2

Stop the government from running schools/get rid of No Child Left Behind

2

 

Parents

6

More parental involvement

6

 

Miscellaneous

 

School vouchers

2

  Spend more time in school

    1

Year round schooling

1

It's clear that Americans are most focused on the central role that teachers can play in terms of improving the educational process. Almost 3 out of 10 Americans mention teaching in one way or another as the focal point for what they would suggest be done to improve the education children receive in this country today.

The second and third most frequently occurring categories are funding and changes to the actual school curriculum. The funding category includes the 11% who say that average classroom size should be reduced, under the assumption that this is a direct result of the level of money a school has. The curriculum category includes a variety of issues, including a return to basic subjects, plus the discipline issue.

Six percent mention more parental involvement, while only 4% mention testing directly.

Gallup asked a separate question focusing on education earlier this year (based on the 50th anniversary in May of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision). This question focused specifically on minority children:

Just your opinion, what would be the most important way to improve educational opportunities for black children in the U.S. today?



2004 Jan-Mar


National adults

 

 

Whites



Blacks

%

%

%

Have the same standards/equal opportunity

11

10

12

More family responsibility

10

11

5

Better funding/financing in general

7

7

9

Better teachers

7

6

12

Greater encouragement to attend school

5

5

7

Improve educational system overall

4

4

5

Better schools/more schools

4

4

5

Improve economic conditions

4

4

4

Focus on funding the inner city schools

4

4

2

Less discrimination/racism

4

4

4

Allow a voucher system

3

3

1

More help with scholarships/grants

2

2

3

Better discipline

2

2

2

More integration between poor and wealthy

1

1

2

Early childhood intervention/development

1

1

2

Smaller classrooms

1

1

1

More help with war on drugs/crime in areas

1

1

*

End affirmative action

*

*

1

Make school more affordable

*

*

1

 

 

 

Other

4

3

6

No opinion

25

27

16

* Less than 0.5%

 

 

 

These responses can be categorized as follows:


Just your opinion, what would be the most important way to improve educational opportunities for black children in the U.S. today?



2004 Jan-Mar


National adults

 

 

Whites



Blacks

%

%

%

Lessen Discrimination

15

14

16

Have the same standards/equal opportunity

11

10

12

Less discrimination/racism

4

4

4

 

 

 

Financial

27

27

32

Better funding/financing in general

7

7

9

Improve educational system overall

4

4

5

Better schools/more schools

4

4

5

Improve economic conditions

4

4

4

Focus on funding the inner city schools

4

4

2

More help with scholarships/grants

2

2

3

Make school more affordable

*

*

1

More integration between poor and wealthy

1

1

2

Smaller classrooms

1

1

1

 

 

 

Family/Community

17

18

14

More family responsibility

10

11

5

Greater encouragement to attend school

5

5

7

Early childhood intervention/development

1

1

2

More help with war on drugs/crime in areas

1

1

*

 

 

 

Teachers

7

6

12

Better teachers

7

6

12

 

 

 

Specifics

3

3

2

Allow a voucher system

3

3

1

End affirmative action

*

*

1

Better discipline

2

2

2

 

 

 

Other

4

3

6

No opinion

25

27

16

Almost one out of three Americans, and almost a third of black Americans, mention financial changes as the best ways to improve schools. Americans also suggest that more involvement by family or community in minority students' lives could improve their educational outcomes, along with more specific efforts to reduce discrimination.

Bottom Line

These two questions ask Americans in two different ways about the issue of improving America's schools. The most frequently occurring responses from Americans seem to coalesce around four themes:


  • Improve the quality of teachers
  • Provide more funding
  • Change the curriculum, particularly a return to the basics of education
  • Increase family involvement and solve problems in the communities in order to provide more support for children

Of some interest is the fact that very few Americans mention the need to increase standardized testing of children as a cure for educational ills. This is relevant, of course, because standardized testing is at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act. As was seen above, 2% of Americans mention improving standards of testing and another 2% mention changing the No Child Left Behind Act.

Of course, supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act may argue that a more rigorous use of tests to hold students and schools accountable for the outcomes of their students would force a secondary focus on all of the types of considerations outlined above. In other words, if school districts are required to focus on improving their students' test scores, they will (or could) hire better teachers and figure out ways to get more funding.

Still, it is instructive to note that the average American thinks more in terms of direct improvements to teachers and finances when pressed to suggest what should be done to improve the nation's schools than they do in terms of an increased focus on testing.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug 9-11, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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