Gallup Poll Indicates Distrust of Public Education at an All-time Low

Gallup released a poll yesterday that indicates that confidence among Americans in the public education system had dropped to an all-time low.  Twenty-nine percent of respondents expressed “a great deal” of confidence in schools but a similar portion, thirty percent, expressed “little or none”.  Forty percent stated they had “some” confidence in the system.  For reference, when Gallup first asked the question in 1958, fifty-eight percent expressed a great deal of confidence meaning there has been a drop twenty-nine percent in respondents who had a great deal of confidence in schools.

The question was posed in a large poll that questioned Americans on their level of faith in various public institutions like the government, the military, religious institutions, newspapers, etc.  It should be noted that every institution except for the military has, in general, had a downward trend over the last 30 years.  This year was a record low for schools but also churches, banks and television news.

While the fact that essentially every institution has lost trust among major segments of the population indicates that the causes for distrust of the school system are not necessarily inherent in the school system itself, there are certainly some education-specific factors at work.  This faltering confidence follows a year of budget cuts across the country that have forced the elimination of jobs in the education sector, student transportation and after-school programs. Parents nationwide have also been vocal in expressing their frustration with excessive standardized testing and “teaching to the test”.  Further, the American public has been inundated with the hard-to-reconcile fact that the American education system is simply no longer the best in the world, a title it had been able to lay claim to for decades.

Commentators have long speculated about what such a decisive lack of confidence in our nation’s most powerful and ubiquitous institutions means.  Many point out that, while the causes of infinite and infinitely complex, the consequences of such rampant distrust will only undermine institutions further.   “This remarkable level of distrust in America’s leading public institutions charged with safeguarding the American Dream is deeply troublesome. The enduring power of the Dream depends heavily on public confidence and trust in our vital institutions,” says David Ford of Xavier University.  David Brooks, a prominent columnist and social critic for the New York Times recently called it not a leadership problem but a “follower problem” stating “Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them”.

This is a problem of the first order according to Brooks because “Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority”.

The public education system is not immune to this; in fact it is much more vulnerable to suffer due to mistrust than an institution like banks or the courts.  The school systems rely on people choosing to send their children to the public schools rather than private, on people willing to pay property taxes to fund them, on parents who are willing to be engaged in the decision-making process, and more.  Continued distrust will undermine schools on all of these fronts and it will be at a time where public education needs a renewal more than ever.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: Gallup, The Huffington Post, The New York Times

Photo Credit: Confidence in Public Schools courtesy of GallupPolitics

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