PDK Poll: Public school parents highlight value of interpersonal skills, career preparation

The 49th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, released last week, highlights a shift in public opinion away from standard measures of school quality based solely on academic achievement. Instead, today’s parents favor alternate measures—including instruction in skills like cooperation, respect, and problem solving—that reflect the changing role of the public school. This shift is accompanied by a near record high opinion of the nation’s public schools, with one in seven respondents giving their local public schools an ‘A’ grade. This is the highest level since 1974, and reflects a significant jump over the past decade, with the portion of ‘A’ grades up 9% since 2007. Parents of students attending a public school—those most familiar with the quality of schools today—are even more complimentary, with 62% giving their local public schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade.

Throughout the poll, respondents continually indicated the importance of nontraditional measures of school quality. As the role of today’s public school has grown to include resources and instruction outside of traditional academics, Americans have begun to perceive these offerings as measures of school quality. Parallel to this trend is the fact that nearly half (49%) of public school parents polled no longer feel that standardized tests measure the things that it is important for their child to learn. Respondents to PDK’s polling diminished the overall importance of standardized tests, with just 6% identifying student performance on standardized tests as the most important factor in school quality. Instead, parents expressed a shift toward valuing skills outside of the traditional academic curriculum, citing the availability of technology and engineering classes and instruction in interpersonal skills as particular indicators of school quality. Respondents showed especially broad-based support for providing students with instruction in interpersonal skills, with 82% of respondents saying that teaching skills like cooperation, respect, and persistence is very or extremely important.

Parents’ enthusiasm for nontraditional measures of school quality extends outside of the traditional classroom environment, with approximately 7 in 10 respondents highlighting the need for extracurricular activities and art and music classes. Respondents also placed high value on preparing students for life after high school through instruction in practical job skills not covered in the standard curriculum. More than eight in ten Americans (82%) support classes focused on job or career skills, and 86% support local schools offering certificate or licensing programs to qualify students for future work. Today’s parents recognize all that can be learned in the public school setting through career training, arts education, and extracurricular activities, and value those interpersonal and other nonacademic skills highly when evaluating school quality.

Americans’ support for nontraditional offerings encompasses more than just instruction in interpersonal and career skills. The vast majority of respondents supported wraparound support programs, which expand the role of the public school to meet the needs of the whole child. Nine in ten respondents (92%) expressed support for after-school programs, with strong majorities also supporting the provision of mental health (87%), general health (79%), and dental (65%) services in public schools. Notably, about three-quarters of Americans said that public schools providing these wraparound supports should be able to seek additional funding. The majority of respondents recognized the value of additional wraparound supports in public schools that go beyond the traditional curriculum. Along with other nonacademic factors like interpersonal skills and job training, wraparound supports are becoming part of Americans’ increasingly positive image of the local public school.

Throughout this year’s PDK Poll, Americans emphasized the importance of the factors outside of traditional academic achievement in their perception of school quality. Today’s public school offers many services beyond traditional classroom instruction, and parents are embracing the expanding definition of a public school community. As more Americans recognize the value of a public school education, the local public school now receives an ‘A’ grade at the highest rate in more than 40 years.