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Americans Understand Their Schools, Just Not School Finance

All things considered, I think my school is pretty good. It’s got monkey bars, snack time, culturally enriching field trips, and shiny blue fish stickers. Oh, and my dad went there.

If you’re thinking that those things aren’t very convincing measures of overall school quality, you’re right. Yet for a long time, factors like these were held out as possible explanations for the gap between people’s generally positive opinions on their own schools and their less-than-optimistic views of the school system as a whole. Ok, maybe not the monkey bars or fish stickers, but you get the point.

The days of guessing may be coming to a close. Martin West’s new analysis of data from this year’s Education Next Survey (which I wrote about back in August) may be the closest I’ve seen to a really plausible, research-based explanation of what I’ll call—brace for neologism—the “perspective gap.”

To start things off, West tosses the commonly cited theory of academic achievement overestimation right out the window:

To our surprise, we found that Americans’ views of the level of student achievement in their local school district were quite accurate overall.  In fact, their average estimate of the 52nd percentile was only one percentile point higher than the actual average level of achievement in their local districts.

You statistics gurus out there may be thinking “of course the mean falls near the 50th percentile. People were just guessing randomly, you dingus.” Fair point, but West is way ahead of you:

[It does not] appear that this correspondence was a result of chance, with most respondents simply guessing that student achievement in their local schools was about average.  Respondents did show a clear preference for round numbers, and for the 50th percentile in particular, but their responses in the aggregate were strongly correlated with actual performance as reported by the Global Report Card. A one percentile increase in actual performance in the district in which the respondent lived was associated with an increase of roughly 0.4 percentile points in the respondent’s estimate.

The big takeaway is that Americans are better informed than they’ve been given credit for in these discussions thus far. Yes, I find that as surprising—and interesting—as you do.

But if Americans aren’t rating their own schools highly due to a systemic overestimation of achievement, what could explain the gap? Could it be that academic achievement simply isn’t that important to many Americans? That seems unlikely in light of other data from the survey, says West.

Instead, he offers productivity, one of my favorite subjects, as a possible culprit. As I noted during my first read of the survey’s results, Americans do have a tendency to greatly underestimate their schools’ per-pupil expenditures. Perhaps they believe their schools offer better bang-for-buck than all those other, more wasteful schools. West’s analysis seems to support this theory:

It seems only reasonable that citizens would take their local schools’ presumed efficiency into account when evaluating their performance.  And, in fact, our data confirm that respondents who believe their local schools spend less assign those schools higher grades than respondents with accurate information on school spending.  So, too, do respondents whose estimates of local and national spending levels differ by a larger amount.

So, what does this mean? If you ask me, it means people need more information. They should know—and be able to understand—how much their schools are really spending. Maybe then we’ll see “perspective gap” begin to narrow if we add a little more financial accountability to the mix.