Is perception of U.S. public education grounded in reality and lived experience or based on partisan politics?

A recent survey suggests that political affiliation, more than facts and experiences, is driving the narrative of a flawed and failing education system.

Gallup published the results of its annual nationwide survey about education with the headline: “U.S. Education Shows Record Political Polarization.”

In 2014, an equal number of Republicans and Democrats (48 percent) expressed satisfaction with U.S. public education. Two years later, 53 percent of Democrats affirmed this view, while only 32 percent of Republicans did so.

Overall, 55 percent of U.S. adults said they were dissatisfied with public education.

By contrast, two-thirds of parents of K-12 students expressed satisfaction with their oldest child’s education – 36 percent “completely satisfied” and 40 percent “somewhat satisfied.”

“The combined 76 percent satisfied matches the trend average since 1999. Since then, only twice – in 2002 and 2013 – did parents’ satisfaction drop much below the average,” Gallup noted.

While parental views have remained steady, responses have fluctuated significantly based on party affiliation.

Gallup’s polling data from 1999 to 2016 reveals that, with few exceptions, when the Democratic Party’s perception improved, the Republican Party’s declined (and vice versa).

“The partisanship that characterizes Americans’ outlook on numerous U.S. policy issues … appears to be affecting the public’s views of K-12 education,” Gallup commented. “If this is merely the result of presidential campaign rhetoric about problems with the U.S. educational system, the gap is likely to close in the next year or two. … Otherwise, if partisanship on education continues, congressional gridlock on education … may follow.”

There are obviously ongoing challenges and issues facing the U.S. education system. No approach – public (traditional, charter or magnet), private or homeschooling – is without its strengths and weaknesses, challenges and issues.

I’ve written several columns about trends and issues within U.S. education:

A 2014 article emphasized the importance of teacher, parent and student collaboration.

A 2015 column pointed out how often people oversimplify education challenges and play the “blame game” instead of seeking common ground to find workable solutions.

A 2016 piece noted the impact of poverty on a child’s education and highlighted how local churches are involved in their local schools.

Education funding and initiatives – particularly the expansion of pre-K programs – have been a key focal point in the 2015 and 2016 State of the State addresses by governors from both political parties.

School teachers and administrators, as well as parents of students, acknowledge that there is always room to improve.

This is why central components of public education include: required continuing education workshops for teachers, ongoing efforts to involve parents in the decision-making process about how best to educate their child, and regular in-class observations and feedback for teachers from administrators.

Even with these components, few would deny that there are a number of ongoing issues to be addressed.

Yet, 76 percent of parents with K-12 students have an overall positive view of their oldest child’s education – a percentage that has remained relatively consistent from 1999 to 2016.

Is the system perfect? Of course not, as the 40 percent response of “somewhat satisfied” reveals.

Is the system utterly broken and in need of a complete overhaul? It is doubtful given the 36 percent who are “completely satisfied” – a higher percentage than I expected considering how rarely I would check that box if surveyed about anything.

It is vital that we have a firm grasp on the reality of a given situation in order to respond appropriately. So, what does the Gallup poll tell us about perception versus reality regarding U.S. education?

Gallup has observed that views of education seem to be closely tied to political affiliation. I tend to assume that those most closely involved and invested – in this case, parents of students – have a more accurate sense of reality than those motivated or influenced by political concerns.

It seems wisest to trust the perception of parents who interact regularly with school teachers and administrators, and whose children are directly impacted on a day-to-day basis by these educators.

If I’m correct in my assumption, then the U.S. is doing well educating our children on the whole, even though there is room for improvement and key issues to address.

We don’t need to be Pollyannaish – critique, reform and refinement are necessary. But we shouldn’t be overly negative either – highlighting, emphasizing and celebrating the positive is vital.

Above all, let’s not let partisan politics color our perception of yet another issue – especially one as significant as the education of our children.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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