By David Casalaspi
In September, Phi Delta Kappan International released its 48th annual “Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.” Just as in previous years, the poll found a sharp divergence between how members of the public view the schools in their own community and how they view the American school system nationally. In 2016, 48% of Americans said that on an A-F scale, they would give the schools in their local community an A or B grade while just 24% said the same for public schools nationally. Moreover, only 17% respondents said they would assign a D or F grade to the schools in their community while 27% said they would do so for schools nationally. The difference was even more pronounced among public school parents who were asked about their own child’s school specifically. Among parents of a child enrolled in public school, 67% said they would give their child’s school an A or B grade, and just 10% said they would give it a D or F grade.
Which Parents Assign High Grades?
With so many parents assigning A’s and B’s to their local schools, and a sizeable minority assigning C’s, D’s, and F’s, some might wonder: Are the parents who assign A’s or B’s different from parents who assign C’s or D’s? Do parents who assign their schools an A or B tend to fit a particular demographic profile? (Are they, for example, mostly wealthy white suburbanites whose children attend high-quality schools?)
Analyses of the survey data reveal, perhaps surprisingly, that the single biggest predictor of A or B grades was not any demographic characteristic on the part of parents, but rather the extent to which parents were satisfied with the communication they have with their child’s school. As part of the survey, parents were asked the following two questions related to their level of communication and engagement with their child’s school:
How satisfied are you with the school’s efforts to keep you informed about how your child is doing in school?
- Extremely satisfied: 32%
- Very satisfied: 28%
- Somewhat satisfied: 23%
- No so satisfied: 10%
- Not at all satisfied: 7%
How often does your child’s school give you opportunities to offer your opinions and input about how things are done there?
- Very often: 28%
- Somewhat often: 18%
- Occasionally: 18%
- Rarely: 10%
- Never: 27%
Parents who were extremely or very satisfied with their school’s communication were nearly three times as likely as those who were less satisfied to give their child’s school an A grade (35% v. 12%). Similarly, parents who felt their child’s school offered opportunities for input very or somewhat often were 29 percentage points more likely to rate their school an A or B. Furthermore, statistical modeling showed that the responses to these two questions were two of the most predictive factors associated with giving an A or B grade, and after parent-school communication was taken into account, other potential factors like the gender, age, race, and income of the parent were not significantly related to the grade the parents assigned to their schools.
So does this mean that schools can improve public perceptions of themselves by simply reaching out to parents more often? Not necessarily. A survey like this is not equipped to establish any sort of causal relationships across survey responses. Sure, it is possible that parent outreach improves perceptions of school quality. In fact, that seems quite plausible intuitively. However, it is also quite possible that the schools that most often involve parents are already the higher quality schools, and they are willing to engage in parent outreach because they want to show off how great they are.
Still, there are reasons to believe that greater parental engagement could lead to improved perceptions of school quality. In 2002, researchers Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider completed a massive, decade-long study of school reform in Chicago which found that social trust is a vital ingredient in school improvement. Social trust, which is cultivated through day-to-day interactions within a school community (including teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders), was associated with a long-term improvement in student achievement as well as a higher degree of comfort and confidence among educators and community members when embarking on risky school reform initiatives.
In other words, schools that operate transparently and regularly reach out to parents are more likely to earn the trust and goodwill of those in the school community, even if performance is currently lacking. Moreover, when parents feel that they have a say in the matter, they are more likely to view schools, and the people working in them, favorably. The school is no longer just a distant place where parents ship their children to for six and a half hours each day. Rather, it is a place full of people they know and understand.
All of this offers promise for improving perceptions of local schools, but it still seems unlikely that there will ever be a great improvement in perceptions of schools nationally—at least in the near future. If communication between a parent and their child’s school is the key predictor of high ratings, then we may never get to a point where the majority of people rate the schools across the nation highly, especially when the news and political discourse tends to cast American education as a failure. After all, parents will never have much need to communicate with schools beyond their neighborhood and develop more nuanced perceptions of those places. The good news is, though, that such an improvement in perceptions might not be necessary. If local parents were to have a clear idea of what goes on in their own schools and decide to rank those schools highly, then it will not matter if their perceptions of other people’s schools are good or not. The local parents will have the final say about the schools in their neighborhood, and any understanding of how good schools are nationally could be obtained by merely deferring to their local expertise.
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