In school poll, familiarity breeds content

The Education Beat

Assessment: In a recent survey of Maryland voters, respondents gave higher marks to their local systems than to those farther afield.

January 12, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THIS MAY come as a surprise, given all we've heard and read about public schools in Maryland, but the state's voters give them higher grades than they did four years ago.

Since 1998, a poll conducted for The Sun has been asking voters to grade the schools A, B, C, D or F. This year's grade point average is on the border between B-minus and C-plus. Four years ago, it was just above a C.

The percentage of voters giving their local schools an A or B has increased over the four years, while C's, D's and F's have declined. Six percent of voters in the Maryland Poll flunked the public schools, while 12 percent gave them an A.

Cautionary notes: This is a poll of voters, not of the general public and not of parents (although, of course, many voters are parents). And the poll - which covers a wealth of issues from voters' opinions on slot machines at the state's racetracks to their estimation of President Bush and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - doesn't delve into the reason for the grades.

But reputable national polls have found the same phenomenon: By and large, people are happy with their local schools and not so happy about schools in the next district or on the other side of the country.

And parents give higher grades to their local schools than the general public does, according to the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, which released its 34th annual survey in the fall. In that poll, 71 percent of parents gave the public school attended by their oldest child an A or a B.

"When we first started to notice that trend, we thought it might be self-delusion," says Bruce Smith, managing editor of the Phi Delta Kappan, an education journal. "But when you think about it, it makes sense. The closer to you, the higher the grade. People do the same thing when they rate members of Congress. Their own congressman is fine. But Congress as a whole is a bunch of incompetents."

So familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds the Lake Wobegon effect, in which all local schools are above average.

What if we matched the grades given in the Maryland Poll with test scores and other measures of quality in the state's school districts? The poll allows us to do that, and it shows that Maryland voters are no dummies. Their grades are a mirror image of school performance, as measured by the now-departed Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the new high school tests and other indicators.

Sixty-seven percent of Howard County voters, for example, give their schools a grade of A or B. At the other extreme, 21 percent of Baltimore City voters give their schools high grades. Fifteen percent of city voters fail the schools. Four percent of Howard County voters do so.

In between, the major districts earn grades along a MSPAP-like spectrum: from low to high, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties.

So image and performance converge when it comes to education. People move from Baltimore to Howard County because they believe the schools are superior. Their real estate agents hand them brochures extolling the virtues of the local schools, which the newcomers expect to be superior.

And they are superior, according to the only benchmarks education has. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy apparently thoroughly understood by voters.

The Maryland Poll asks a few other school-related questions. Education continues to be the top issue for voters. Nineteen percent put it in first place, ahead of the state's budget shortfall (listed as the top concern of 17 percent), jobs (12 percent), crime (11 percent), taxes (10 percent) and traffic (7 percent).

And voters come to no clear consensus on funding the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which would pump $1.3 billion into the public schools over the next six years. Asked about this year's commitment, $147 million, 34 percent recommend a delay in the funding while the state's budget situation improves, while 30 percent advise "major cutbacks" elsewhere in the budget to pay for education, and 19 percent recommend tax increases.

This differs somewhat from the findings of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. In the fall, Americans overwhelmingly rejected cuts in education spending. Seventy-eight percent called for reductions in other programs to pay for schools.

The Maryland Poll, conducted by Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda from Dec. 30 through Jan. 4, surveyed 1,200 voters by telephone. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

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