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Analysis: School Quality, College and Career Pathways, Tracking — New Ed Surveys Find Surprising Agreement in How Parents & Young People Think

American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey

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Americans have deep disagreements on education issues like pandemic mask wearing in school, critical race theory, what’s taught in the classroom and other hot-button topics. But despite these profound disparities in thought, two new polls suggest parents and young adults agree on a core set of opinions about K-12 and postsecondary education. 

These nationally representative surveys were conducted by American Compass and YouGov and involved 1,000 parents with children ages 12 to 30 and 1,000 young adults ages 18 to 30.

In short, while parents in many polls think their kids’ schools are fine, both groups in these new studies are critical of the overall performance of the education American students are receiving. And rather than affirming the often heard “college for all” mantra, both groups support creating more pathways and practical programs that prepare young people to lead decent lives after their schooling is finished. 

First, when asked to evaluate how well K-12 public school achieve eight goals, only one — teaching academic skills and knowledge — received a rating of excellent or good from more than half the parents and young adults:

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Second, neither parents nor young adults think very much of what higher education advocates consider strengths of colleges and universities:

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On some of these strengths, attitudes vary by partisan affiliation, with Democrats more likely than Independents or Republicans to cite higher education’s strength. 

Conversely, there’s near unanimity regarding what was cited as higher education’s primary weakness:. Over 8 in 10 parents (83 percent) and 7 in 10 young adults (76 percent) say it’s too expensive, an opinion held across political affiliations. There’s far less agreement about the other attributes described as weakness in the surveys, and there are partisan differences, with Democrats generally more concerned about access and Republicans more concerned about academic content. 

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Finally, parents and young adults are dissatisfied with the options offered by the current K-12 and postsecondary systems. More than 8 in 10 (85 percent) parents “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available for my child,” with strong support for non-college career pathways after high school. 

These options include a three-year apprenticeship leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.” This preference is linked with the educational attainment of parents, with those having college degrees more inclined to opt for a four-year college program for their child.

It may surprise some education advocates that these surveys found respondents eager for a practice some have long discredited — tracking within high schools. The surveys recognized that the term “tracking” might have negative overtones, so they presented half of respondents with that word and half with the alternative phrase “diverse pathways.”

Respondents asked to choose between two approaches to high school: one where schools “use [tracking/diverse pathways] to offer students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests,” and a second with “a goal of bringing all students along to the same end point, which is typically preparation for college.”

Tracking was overwhelmingly popular, and the terminology was irrelevant. Overall, 86 percent of parents supported the first approach, regardless of whether it was described as “tracking” or as “diverse pathways.” Young adults were similarly supportive. 

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In sum, both parents and young adults are critical of the overall performance of K-12 and postsecondary education, and groups want educational experiences for young people that are broader than the singular “college for all” mantra implies. That includes creating more education options. 

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program. Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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