Americans look at education and are not too pleased

What do Americans think about the future of education?  We’re pretty pessimistic, according to a new poll.  The study’s results point to some useful trends for us to consider, especially when we work in education.

The pollsters asked about a series of trends, always with the same prompt.  Does this trend make you “more optimistic or more pessimistic about the direction the country is headed”?  To begin with, Americans seem most optimistic about technology, despite the well-publicized anti-technology views of Lanier et al.  We’re happier about tech than about anything else in the poll, including ethnic diversity, education, demographics, corporations, and government:

How Americans see certain trends, optimistically and pessimistically

Perhaps this broad admiration for technology helps explain the continued support for technology in education, in addition to other factors (promotion, venture capital, etc).

Education doesn’t fare so well, as you can see from the chart. Generally speaking, fewer than half of Americans think education’s moving in a positive direction.  “Overall, 43 percent said the education system’s performance made them mostly optimistic about the nation’s future, while 51 percent professed mostly pessimism.”  Fewer than half.  A hair more than one half think education’s doing bad stuff for the country. Please bear this figure in mind when watching politicians take anti-school stands.  They know their voters.

Let’s slice this in a few directions.

Down Off, Anders SandbergAge: we can observe a generational gap. “Millennials, again, were more optimistic (50 percent) than older generations, particularly Baby Boomers (just 36 percent) and the oldest respondents (39 percent).”  I wonder where this comes from: anti-education propaganda on tv news, whose audience is largely seniors?  Resentment at paying taxes for public education once one is not parenting school-age children?  Or did millennials just receive more pro-school messages growing up?

Race: “African Americans (59 percent) and Hispanics (53 percent) were much more likely than whites (just 37 percent) to express optimism about the impact of the education system.”  This can connect to the socio-economic status of blacks and Latinos, who can see education as a powerful leg up.

Class: the Atlantic’s account doesn’t offer stats here, but an intriguing summary.  “Upper-income respondents generally expressed less optimism about the schools than those who earned less.”  Is this a case of those who ascended the ladder kicking it out from beneath them?

Education: “Ironically, college-educated whites—arguably, the element of American society that has benefited the most from the nation’s schools—were the least impressed; only 29 percent said the education system made them more optimistic about the future.” I’d love to see this broken down by age and especially debt ownership.

Politics: there’s something of a party tilt.  “The partisan gap, too, was large, although political independents (37 percent) aligned with Republicans (36 percent) as far less optimistic than Democrats (52 percent).”  Interesting to see independents nowhere near a midpoint between those party adherents.

What can we make of these results?

Schools are faring badly, overall.   A serious chunk of Americans think education is doing a poor job.  So our outreach efforts are not doing well, and need serious rethinking.  Perhaps we educators can decide to celebrate and grow our public intellectuals, and do more with social media.

Intersectionally, I wonder about the links between race and class.  It seems like poorer people, which includes a disproportionally high number of blacks and Latinos, have a more positive view of education than wealthier people, who trend white.  Are we seeing a divide based on class and race, where one side still believes in schooling’s role in helping the American dream, and another that thinks… something else?  Perhaps that second group (the wealthier, whiter one) now views smarts as innate, largely unaffected by formal education.  Or maybe that group is just more fully neoliberal, rejecting an education system that remains largely state-supported (actually in K-12, nominally in post-secondary).  And let’s not discount classic racism.  What do we make of this divide?  And if it’s happening, how do educators respond?

What about those responses to America’s aging?  Note this summary of reactions to that trend: “On the long-term implications of ‘the growing number of seniors as the Baby Boom retires,’ just 36 percent of those surveyed registered optimism, while 47 percent were pessimistic.”  If a lot of Americans are concerned about being able to support a growing number of retirees, how many of them are doing zero-sum calculations that we (states, families, the federal government) will have to shift more funds to eldercare and away from education?

I do have some questions about this study itself.  Are generation X people – my people – absent from some of the breakdowns?  Are Asians represented? How do these results compare with previous or comparable surveys?

In the meantime, educators have much to worry about here.  Americans see schooling in a troubling light.  Policies, culture, and attitudes will likely be shaped accordingly.


(photo by Anders Sandberg)

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3 Responses to Americans look at education and are not too pleased

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