Column: Two new national polls offer some surprises in education

By Joe Nathan
Guest Columnist

Two new national polls on public views about education offer some surprises.

The first was released by Education Next, a magazine led by two Harvard professors. The magazine’s mission statement includes the belief that “bold change is needed in American K-12 education.”

The second was released by Phi Delta Kappa, an educators organization generally viewed as “middle of the road.”

Education Next has released a poll annually for 10 years. This is Phi Delta Kappa’s 48th annual poll.

Each poll asked more than 30 questions. This column summarizes only a few that I think will be especially interesting to families.

Several Phi Delta Kappa questions can be useful to schools that (wisely) survey families. Phi Delta Kappa found that 60 percent of parents polled are either extremely or very satisfied with schools’ efforts to inform them about how their child is doing.

However, in other questions that schools might use, Phi Delta Kappa found surprising differences between what people wanted from local schools and how well they felt these things were being accomplished. For example, 90 percent of people surveyed want schools to help students develop good work habits, but only 31 percent said local schools were doing this extremely or very well. Eighty-two percent want schools to help students become good citizens, but only 33 percent think local schools are doing this well.

Next, the public has strong, somewhat surprising views about testing. This idea has been very controversial. Some people believe that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing and that we need a broader array of ways to measure student progress.

However, Education Next found that about two-thirds of the public and parents surveyed strongly support a federal requirement that all students take reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once more in high school. Of the public, 33 percent strongly support and 36 percent somewhat support this requirement, compared to only 13 percent who somewhat oppose and 7 percent who completely oppose this. Parents have similar views, with 32 percent completely supporting and 36 percent somewhat supporting annual testing. Only 24 percent of parents somewhat or completely oppose annual testing.

Both polls found that the majority of the public does not favor allowing families to have their youngsters opt out of testing. Phi Delta Kappa found that 59 percent opposed and 37 percent supported this option. Education Next found that 10 percent of the public strongly supported and 16 percent somewhat supported this option, while 24 percent somewhat opposed and 36 percent completely opposed this.

Here in Minnesota, most education leaders have encouraged participation in testing while giving families the choice to opt out. Educators also are trying to use a broader array of assessments beyond traditional standardized tests to help illustrate what students are learning. I think these efforts make sense.

Phi Delta Kappa found big differences in opinions about the main goal of public education: 45 percent believe it is to prepare students academically, while 26 percent think it’s to prepare students to be good citizens and 25 percent say it is to prepare students for work. Many of us believe public schools should do all of these things.

I wish both polls asked whether a key goal should be to help students identify their strengths and talents and develop those. For me, that’s an important, though not the only goal.

Polls don’t solve any problems in education. But used wisely, I think that they can help identify what’s working well and what needs to be improved. Polls also help educators and policymakers learn what the public thinks of their efforts.

Both polls surveyed families in English and Spanish. View the Phi Delta Kappa poll at and the Education Next poll at

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]