Aug 31, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Massive school satisfaction gap pits parents against everyone else

Share who say they are satisfied with K-12 education in the U.S. today
Data: Gallup; Note: Parents were specifically asked about the quality of their oldest child's K-12 education; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans en masse are dissatisfied with the country's schools. But parents feel pretty good about their own kids' education.

Why it matters: A divide between parents with first-hand experience of U.S. schools and the rest of the country has gotten worse since the onset of the pandemic and a rise in political polarization.

What's happening: 76% of parents believe their K-12 students are receiving a quality education, according to new data from an annual Gallup survey.

  • But just 36% of adults overall said they were satisfied with K-12 education in the country.

State of play: Parents have hands-on experience with their kids' education system, said Julie Gorlewski, a professor of learning and instruction at the University at Buffalo.

  • They can directly speak with teachers, vote for school board members and see the impacts of the lessons.
  • People tend to give the institutions that they're interacting with directly the benefit of the doubt, she said. School policy is decided at the statewide and district levels, facilitating direct engagement from parents.
  • "Schools seek to build relationships so that parents have a chance to get to know and trust their children's teachers, paraprofessionals and school leaders," Gorlewski said.

By the numbers: Following a two-decade-long trend, parents as a whole are much more comfortable with the state of K-12 education than adults overall, Gallup found.

  • Completely satisfied: 35% of parents, 8% of adults overall
  • Somewhat satisfied: 41% of parents, 28% of adults
  • Somewhat dissatisfied: 12% of parents, 38% of adults
  • Completely dissatisfied: 9% of parents, 25% of adults

The intrigue: Satisfaction among adults overall (51%) hit a 15-year high in 2019 but has dropped 15 percentage points since the pandemic and virtual schooling began.

  • Among parents, satisfaction dipped six points but has remained largely stable.

Zoom in: Public opinion polling typically finds that questions on general categories yield more dismal outlooks than specific cases, said Elizabeth Bell, an assistant professor in policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Perceptions of Congress as a whole are usually far worse than opinions about a specific representative.
  • "It's a very different set of belief systems because you're drawing on this sort of personalization, rather than this very depersonalized national political scheme," she said.

Worth noting: American confidence in major U.S. institutions overall has dropped.

Go deeper: "Exhausted majority" wants to rethink K-12 education

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that satisfaction among adults overall briefly peaked in 2004, not 2019.

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