Post #1: America’s Perception of the US’s K-12 Public Education System

Hey guys, I just wanted to update y’all on how my project is going and let you know what I’ve been up to.

The past two weeks have been busy, and at times the work was a bit tedious, but overall I’m having a great time and learning a ton. I’ve been mostly concerned with preliminary research and setting up the framework for the rest of the summer. My topic, Examining the American Public’s Perception of the United States’ Education System as Failing, is pretty broad and multifaceted. After a day or so of very basic research on the public’s perception of our education system, I fleshed out my outline and broke my topic into 7 main sections/ questions and about a dozen or so sub-questions.

I’ll spare you the details, but basically I’ve divided my research into main questions of “What is the American public’s perception of the US education system?”, ” Why do Americans have this perception?” and “Is this perception justified?” Each of those is further divided into questions about the various factors within each section.

Right now I’ve been primarily focused on the first part, identifying what the public’s perception is, but when it appears, I have been taking note of information related to other parts of the project. After looking over hundreds of polls and surveys, It’s pretty clear to be that between 40-55%, mostly around 45-50% of Americans are satisfied or very satisfied with our public k-12 education system. Similar polls also tend to show that just under half of Americans are optimistic or “feel good” about that nation’s education system. That leaves a significant portion of Americans who are dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the country’s schools.

So far I’m beginning to think that this sentiment has a lot to do with where Americans get their information about public schools from. Overall it seems like most people don’t know that much about the education system. For example in a 2006 study, 27.7 % of Floridians polled said they were not at all familiar with K-12 public education in Florida. And a further 36.5% answered as only “somewhat familiar.” This is evident throughout the survey, such as in a question where it asks respondents to estimate Florida’s yearly per pupil expenditures. 50% of people estimated it to be less than $4,000. Meanwhile the actual figure is over $7,000. At the same time, 58.3% of Floridians believe that public education spending is too low. Perhaps if the same people knew how much Florida actually spent on its students, they’d have one less source of discontent.

Another statistic that struck me as wild had to do with an opinion poll on Indiana public schools. Part of it asked respondents how familiar they were with No Child Left Behind as well as their state’s own version of NCLB. 64.1% said they were only a little familiar with or not familiar with NCLB at all. And in terms of familiarity with Indiana’s own version of NCLB, 70.8% answered that they were not at all familiar with it.

I believe that this lack of familiarity with the school systems ties into Americans’ perceptions of the education system because what they don’t know from firsthand experience, they believe from what others tell them. I’ve also looked over numerous polls that ask Americans to identify how satisfied they are with their community’s schools and polls that ask American parents how satisfied they are with their own child’s education. These results are much kinder, with 50-70% of respondents viewing their local schools favorably.

I think there’s two main ways to look at this. It might be that the public sees schools at a certain, rather low, baseline and they are biased towards their local schools, perhaps because their children went there or they know some of the teachers personally. On the other hand, it could also be that the public gets more direct information about their local schools and sees how they are doing firsthand, setting a fair baseline rating for schools across the country similar to their local school. Then, however, lacking the firsthand knowledge of what the school and its students have been up to, the public has to rely on media for its perception of those other schools. National media won’t report small fundraisers that a school in a different state held. It won’t publish a simple op-ed a high school basketball player wrote about the benefits of extracurricular activities. What it will do, however, is publish sensational articles comparing US students to those of other countries, citing a widening gap in achievement between us as an educational powerhouse like Finland or South Korea. Reports such as these would impact the opinion Americans have about the rest of the country’s schools.

This brings me to the PISA test. Orchestrated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study that focuses on identifying how good 15-year-olds are at math, science, and reading. As I combed through articles discussing the American education system, its reform, and its effectiveness, authors frequently cited PISA results when talking about the United States’ rank as compared to other countries. It appears that many critics of American education rely on PISA results as the definitive guide to evaluating and ranking the quality of a country’s education system.

This seemed pretty interesting so I took a deeper look. What I found was that, while it has its merits, the PISA tests are inconclusive, possibly biased, and definitely shouldn’t be used as the sole measure for academic success. There are a ton of headlines along the lines of “ US Students Perform 17th of 34 Countries” or “US Education Ranks 36th in World.” In my opinion, these are heavily biased and trying to fit the education system into an easily digestible sound-bite. Most of these attempts at journalism portray the United States as dropping behind dozens of other countries, possibly even having done that poor as compared to a random sampling of 34 countries. Meanwhile in reality, these countries we are being compared to are the rest of the developed world. And most lists fail to explain that certain spots are occupied by “economies” rather than countries. So cities and districts such as Shanghai, Hong Kong etc, which are extremely unrepresentative of their  countries, are portrayed as distinct entities that outrank the United States


  1. Jen Hartley says:

    I think your research questions are really fascinating! I especially think it is interesting how people view their local schools more favorably. I feel like this carries through to public opinion about so many different policy areas; people tend to look more kindly on what they know well and do not want to believe that they are the problem. I also think that your investigation into the PISA test is very interesting. I would presume that much of the negative public opinion about U.S. education stems from headlines like the ones you gave as examples, so I think it is very important for people to have a good understanding of what a test like that is actually measuring.