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Confidence in U.S. Schools: The Long-Term Trend

by Gary Gordon, EdD
Global Practice Leader, Education Division

As the 2004-2005 school year approaches for millions of students, how confident are Americans with the quality of the public schools in this country? 

Gallup's May 2004 survey of public confidence in institutions* indicates that 41% of Americans have "a great deal" (16%) or "quite a lot" (25%) of confidence in the U.S. public schools. That number has been creeping up over the last five years, though from a longer-term perspective it's apparent that this remains a time of heightened insecurity regarding American education.

Could politics be influencing the numbers this election year? Interestingly, despite that a Republican administration is in power, Democrats have the highest level of confidence in public education today, at 46%. Just 35% of Republicans share this view. Ratings vary little by racial and ethnic categories, though urban dwellers are somewhat less likely to say they're confident in the public schools than are those living in America's rural areas.

Long-Term Trend

Though it has shown incremental improvement over the last few years, the percentage of Americans saying they have confidence in the public schools has hovered within a five-point range since 1995.

Gallup has been asking this question regularly since 1973. During the 1970s, a majority of those surveyed expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in America's schools. During that time, the public schools ranked second or third among the institutions Gallup asked about. Since 1979, however, the proportion expressing confidence in the public schools reached 50% only once, in 1987. The low point -- 34% -- occurred in 1994.

Ranked Against Other Institutions

When compared with other American institutions, confidence in public schools currently ranks right in the middle -- eighth out of 15 institutions. Only five institutions garner confidence from more than 50% of respondents. The military (75%) and the police (64%) receive the highest confidence endorsement, followed by the church/organized religion (53%), banks (53%), and the presidency (52%).

One trended comparison is particularly interesting: A quarter-century ago, confidence in the public schools was about as widespread as confidence in the institution currently at the top of the list -- the U.S. military. In 1979, 53% of Americans said they were confident in the public schools, 54% in the military. Confidence in the military increased into the 60% range as the Cold War heightened and military spending shot up, and generally remained between 60% and 69% from 1985 to 2001, and has been above 70% since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In 1991, shortly after the successful conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, confidence in the military spiked to 85%. The same period saw a waning of confidence in public schools, stabilizing somewhat in the mid-1990s.

Bottom Line

From one point of view, confidence in the public schools does not seem terribly low. After all, its confidence rating is just slightly less than the U.S. Supreme Court and the medical system. Moreover, public education earns greater confidence than prominent institutions such as the criminal justice system and Congress.

On the other hand, from a historical perspective, Americans' confidence in public education has the potential to be stronger. The idea that it's become "normal" for a majority of Americans to be uneasy about U.S. schools is alarming.

The success of public education depends on taxpayers' satisfaction and confidence. Education leaders and policy-makers need to take a hard look at the 39% of respondents who indicate only "some" confidence in the nation's public schools. Reinforcing the tentative confidence of those millions of Americans is key to boosting overall enthusiasm for the direction of public education in this country.    

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 21-23, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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