School Satisfaction: Why is there such a rift?
As we have talked with colleagues, friends, and others acting in the education sector through the various RethinkingEDU podcasts, it’s easy for us to be consumed by the idea that American schools are poor, or are doing a poor job. Nearly all of the guests that we have spoken with talk about how they would like to change schools, or how they have evidence that schools, in their current state, are not serving a great number of students. The data support our guests’s analyses. In 2019, for example, roughly two million students ages 16-24 stopped out of their K12 experience. That’s a non-completion rate of over 5%. When this data is combined with anecdotal data around students feeling a sense of general boredom or disengagement in school, it’s difficult to argue with the idea that schools need to improve to serve more students.
Yet so many caregivers continue to report favorable perceptions and experiences in school. Gallup, who has been tracking school satisfaction since 1999, found in their 2021 poll that 73% of caregivers who have school-aged students are at least somewhat satisfied with their school experience. This number seems to be in stark contrast to the guests we have interviewed, and in stark contrast to many of the experiences of the students we’ve seen in our own classrooms.
I want to explore some of the reasons why this rift in perception might exist.
Reason 1: Caregivers want to believe in school
Institutional memory, and the research around the power of past experience, is strongly correlated with individuals having a more accepting view of an experience. Because so many caregivers have had school experiences that were not overly terrible, they are more likely to classify their student’s experience as at least acceptable… as long as their school is not so different from their own experience. Thus, caregivers are predisposed to believing school is at least acceptable for their student.
Reason 2: It’s difficult to empathize with others
When you are having a particular experience, it can often be challenging to empathize with others who may be having an experience that is so disparate from your own. We see this across sectors. So if a family’s experience is largely positive, they are more likely to respond to someone else’s experience with understanding but not project onto their own experience. A response might be: “Oh wow, that sounds terrible, but that’s not my experience.” Someone is much more likely to empathize with an experience that is similar to their own, rather one that is starkly different. To understand the situation of others requires time and listening, two things that many seem to be at a loss for these days.
Reason 3: There aren’t many other options
If a parent starts to say that a school is less than adequate, what are their options? Unless an area is flush with charter schools (which have a mixed track record) or other not-very-expensive independent schools, caregivers are stuck with their local public school. It almost doesn’t make sense for them to be overly critical of their school, unless they’re going to get into the process of addressing the change. The school just becomes “good enough”.
Reason 4: The veiled school experience
When my caregivers asked me about school growing up, my response was often: “It was fine” or “I don’t know what we learned today…”. These responses were less about my interest in school, but more about me not wanting to engage with my caregivers about my daily experience. We see this trope play out all the time with young people reporting an underwhelming amount of information to their caregivers about their school experience. Thus, how many parents, guardians, concerned family members really know what is happening in school? Particularly for those with very busy schedules, multiple jobs, or multiple children, keeping up with school can be challenging. This results in the no-news-is-good-news fall back, and an assumption about school being adequate enough for their student.
What’s clear in this exploration is that it’s challenging to see what’s happening in schools. I’m not just talking about curricula and day-to-day teaching/learning, but what’s really going on in school. What is a young person’s experience walking through the hallway? Participating in class? Being asked to challenge themselves in a learning activity? And so much more.
What we know to be true is that for a long time, we’ve been pushing for schools that are responsive to student needs, that teach skills that we know students will need in the future (eg. Social Emotional Learning), and schools that engage rather than disengage. In all of our conversations, it is apparent that schools are leaving behind those that already have a muffled voice at the table. These are the individuals that we need to stick up for, even when polling says that a “majority” of caregivers think school as-is, is just fine.
This article’s reading list:
NPR- The education culture war is raging. But for most parents, it's background noise
Ipsos- Parents report improvements in their child’s educational attainment compared to last year
NYTimes- Who’s Unhappy With Schools? The Answer Surprised Me ($$)
Gallup- K-12 Parents Remain Largely Satisfied With Child's Education