What Americans want from education is not what they are being given

American Compass brings us the story:

Failing on Purpose Survey

Education reformers have lost sight of what most Americans believe public education is for.

Executive Summary

The American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey explores the perspectives and experiences of those in closest contact with the American education system—namely parents, current students, and recent graduates. In partnership with YouGov, American Compass surveyed representative samples of 1,000 American parents with school age or recently graduated children (ages 12–30) and 1,000 American young adults (ages 18-30) about their views on the purpose of public education; their reflections on the way that the school system has performed; and their desire for reforms to both K–12 schools and higher education.

Americans want a public education system less focused on college, more focused on preparing people to build decent lives in their communities

  • By wide margins, American parents and young adults say it is more important for schools to help people develop skills and values necessary for a decent life than to help them maximize academic potential; this preference holds across classes and political parties.
  • Americans are frustrated with what the education system is providing today—most say it is “Good” or “Excellent” at academics, but not at preparing students for their lives or for citizenship; by overwhelming margins, parents and students both say they wish the education system provided more options.
  • From a list of ten different strengths that advocates for higher education attribute to colleges and universities, none of the options received majority support as a strength from either parents or young adults; more than four-fifths of parents and more than three-quarters of young adults cited affordability as a problem in higher education.

Americans want education reforms to emphasize non-college pathways

  • Tracking in high school is an overwhelmingly popular model of reform, and the terminology is irrelevant. Overall, 86% of parents supported the model regardless of whether it was described as “tracking” or as “diverse pathways.”
  • While the vast majority of American parents agree that college is too expensive, free college isn’t what they want in response. Asked which option they wish were available to their child, a three-year apprenticeship that led to a credential and a well-paying job or a full-tuition college scholarship, most parents opted for the three-year apprenticeship.

Part I: The Purposes of Public Education

The public education system is a bedrock institution of American life, yet Americans have widely varying views on what its purpose is. The area of greatest agreement—that equipping young people to build decent lives should take precedence over maximizing academic potential—is also the one in which schools today most obviously pursue the wrong goal. With so many competing priorities at play, policymakers must decide where the common good demands a standard approach and make the public case for its implementation. Outside those situations, families will be best served by a pluralistic model that allows them to choose schools well aligned with their values.

I.A Parents of Adolescents and Young Adults

The Failing on Purpose Survey focused on four dimensions where schools must mediate between competing priorities: empowering the common citizen versus maximizing academic potential; forming a virtuous elite versus promoting individual success; pursuing knowledge that advances American power versus pursuing it for its own sake; and instilling civic virtues and shared allegiances versus undermining national pride. In each case, the survey presented respondents with two statements and asked them to choose which they considered more important.

The first pair of statements juxtaposed a more republican aim of education with a more meritocratic one:

  • Help students develop the skills and values needed to build decent lives in the communities where they live.
  • Help students maximize their academic potential and pursue admission to colleges and universities with the best possible reputations.

American parents of adolescents and young adults (ages 12–30) strongly preferred the republican aim of developing skills and values necessary for a decent life, a preference that held constant across classes and political parties.

The second pair of statements offered competing visions for elite education:

  • Prepare top students to become responsible leaders in their communities.
  • Prepare top students to pursue their passions and achieve professional success.

Two-thirds of American parents prefer the focus on individual interests and success, with that view again widespread across parties and classes.

The third pair of statements concerned the education system’s role as a source of knowledge and innovation:

  • Focus resources and funding on the fields of study most important to America’s economic growth, technological leadership, and national security.
  • Focus resources and funding in the areas of greatest interest to scholars and students.

Parents broadly preferred advancing the nation’s interests, though by a smaller margin than emerged on the first two questions. Partisan opinions also differed more, with Republicans choosing the advancement of national interests by 40 percentage points but Democrats by only 14 points.

The fourth and final pair of statements contrasted competing approaches to civic and patriotic education:

  • Emphasize America’s history and accomplishments, instilling a common set of civic values and a shared American identity.
  • Emphasize America’s ideals and failures to achieve them, encouraging students to discover their own values and identities.

These statements generated the most closely divided response, driven by a sharp partisan split. Whereas Republicans preferred emphasis on common values and identity by 64 percentage points, Democrats preferred independent discovery by 26 points. Working- and middle-class parents leaned toward the common while upper-class parents landed slightly on the side of the individual. The Republican response is also notable for the strength of opinion, with 65% saying that common values and identity are “much more important,” by far the highest share to choose an option as “much more important” of any question in the survey.

I.B Young Adults

Young adults mostly share the opinions of parents on the purposes of public education.

On the initial question contrasting an emphasis on building decent lives versus maximizing academic potential, their preference is especially strong: more than four-in-five Republican and Independent young adults as well as three-quarters of their Democrat peers agree on the republican aim of empowering the common citizen.

Young adults similarly, though slightly less strongly than parents, prefer an emphasis on individual success over preparation for community leadership. As with their parents, young Democrats are most likely to lean in this direction.

Young adults are also more narrowly supportive of focusing resources on advancing national power, by 54% to 46%. As with parents, young Republicans are most supportive of emphasizing the national interest.

The only significant divergence in views across generations emerges on the question of civic education. Whereas most parents preferred an emphasis on American accomplishments and common values, only one-third of young adults felt likewise. In part, the difference stems from a difference in partisan mix—young people are more likely to be Democrats, so the view most likely to be held by Democrats holds relatively more sway. But that is only part of the explanation: the shift in preference also holds within parties. Young Democrats, Independents, and Republicans are all more inclined to an emphasis on American failures and discovering independent identities than their Democratic, Independent, and Republican elders.

I.C Elevating the Common Citizen

The strong preference of both parents and students for an emphasis on preparing people to build decent lives in the communities where they live is especially striking because it also conflicts so strongly with what they see as the strength of the system today.

Respondents were shown eight different objectives of public schools and asked to evaluate how well, in their own experience, their schools had performed. For only one objective did a majority of parents or students give a rating of “Good” or “Excellent”: Teaching students academic skills and knowledge in core subjects. By contrast, 43% of parents and just 31% of young people rated their schools as “Good” or “Excellent” at helping students develop the skills and values needed to build decent lives in the communities where they live. Young people gave lower ratings than parents across the board, but this was the subject with the largest gap.

One might expect that those for whom the current system has succeeded would be more likely to prioritize the focus on academic excellence that had served them well. But this was not the case. Those parents whose children had never pursued or dropped out of higher education did lean more strongly toward the “build decent lives” option, but those whose children had completed post-secondary degrees made the same choice by more than two-to-one.

Likewise, parents are nearly as likely to emphasize building decent lives over maximizing academic potential if their children are “living the American dream” as if they are “struggling, and worried for the future.” Young adults are equally likely to emphasize building decent lives regardless of how they feel their own lives are going.

One dimension that shows some variation in preference is race. While still strongly preferring an emphasis on building decent lives, non-white Americans are relatively more inclined to focus on maximizing academic potential. Among non-white Americans, it is Asian-American parents, in particular, who report this focus on academics: 59% of Asian-American parents choose maximizing academic potential as a more important goal for public education than developing the skills and values necessary for a decent life. The responses from Asian-American young adults, by contrast, are more similar to those of other young adults.

I.D Aspirations

A leading factor in public understanding of public education, but one rarely considered by policymakers or analysts, is the wide range of aspirations that people have for their own and their families’ lives. The Failing on Purpose Survey posed two questions to the parents of adolescents and young adults about their hopes for their children. Both showed deep divides on underlying values.

The first question offered a choice between an educational program that would lead toward the best possible career far from home, or one that would lead toward a good career close to home. Overall, parents and young adults both opted for the good career close to home by similar margins. But for parents, the preference varied by class. Lower- and working-class parents were much more likely to choose the close-to-home option, while upper-class parents preferred the best career far from home by two-to-one.

A similar pattern emerged on a second question, asking parents to choose whether they would prefer that, at age 40, their children were financially well-off but childless or just getting by but happily married with children. Parents chose happily married with children for their own children by a 60% to 40% margin (among young adults themselves, 54% preferred the family-oriented outcome), with little variation by class. The question did, however, elicit a significant partisan gap.

Across political parties, parents aspire first and foremost for their children to have happy families of their own. But whereas the margin is 8 percentage points for Democrats and 16 points for Independents, it is 48 points among Republicans. This holds likewise for young adults themselves, with young Democrats splitting evenly between preferring to be financially well-off or happily married with children.

 

Part II: The Failure of College-for-All

For recent generations, the public education system has placed overwhelming emphasis on college attendance and policymakers have directed virtually all of their resources and ideas in that direction. This emphasis does not reflect the priorities of American families. Both parents and young adults are divided over higher education’s merits, an overwhelming majority want more educational options, and given the choice between free college and robust apprenticeship programs most prefer the latter.

II.A Higher Education

While the American public education system remains fixated on college preparation and admissions, parents and young adults are unclear on what higher education actually offers.

The Failing on Purpose Survey presented a list of ten different strengths that advocates for higher education attribute to colleges and universities, asking respondents to select all those that they considered strengths. None of the options received majority support from either parents or young adults.

The top strengths in parents’ eyes were the role of universities as hubs of scientific discovery and innovation. Young adults are more likely to see college as a rite of passage and emphasize the opportunity for identity exploration and having fun before adulthood.

On some of higher education’s characteristics, American attitudes vary dramatically by partisan affiliation. Across both parents and young adults, Democrats are more likely than Independents or Republicans to cite any strength of higher education except for college athletics and the ability to maximize students’ potential. The split is especially pronounced on the related categories of critical thinking, identify exploration, and activism: Democrats tend to see all three as strengths of the university; Republicans strongly disagree.

While American parents and young adults are divided over the strengths of higher education, they agree about its problems—or at least one of them. More than four-fifths of parents and more than three-quarters of young adults cited affordability as a problem. Broadly, parents are more likely than young adults to identify problems in higher education, but young adults are more likely to say that not enough students attend college and that colleges place too much emphasis on athletics.

Concern with college costs is bipartisan, but on some dimensions partisan differences again emerge. Democrats are relatively more concerned about access, while Republicans are more concerned about content. Nearly two-thirds of Republican adults say that colleges encourage radical values and political views, compared to less than a tenth of their Democratic peers. Close to half of Republican adults say that college discourage students from thinking for themselves, compare to just 8% of Democrats.

II.B Alternatives

Parents are dissatisfied with the options that the current education system offers them. The vast majority say they wish their child had more options; young adults, reflecting on their own educational opportunities, concur.

One form of choice that Americans are especially hungry for is tracking within high schools, offering pathways explicitly oriented toward outcomes besides college enrollment. The survey presented a choice of educational model between one that offers students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests and one that sets a goal of bringing all students along to the same end point, typically preparation for college. Recognizing that some politicians and pundits fear the negative connotations of the term “tracking,” the survey presented half of respondents with that word and half with the alternative phrase, “diverse pathways.”

Tracking was overwhelmingly popular, and the terminology was irrelevant. Overall, 86% of parents supported the model regardless of whether it was described as “tracking” or as “diverse pathways.” Young adults were similarly supportive. Opinion varied little across classes. Notably, lower-class parents are more likely to support “tracking” (74%) than “diverse pathways” (65%).

Unsurprisingly, the strong desire for non-college pathways in high school extends to a preference for public policies that would support advancement down those pathways after high school. The vast majority of American parents agree that college is too expensive, but free college isn’t what they want in response. Asked which option they wish were available to their child, a three-year apprenticeship that led to a credential and a well-paying job or a full-tuition college scholarship, most parents opted for the three-year apprenticeship.

But this preference is not universal; rather, it is closely linked to the educational attainment of the respondents and their households. More than two-thirds (68%) of parents in the best-educated couples (both parents have post-graduate degrees) say they would prefer a full-tuition scholarship for their child, whereas a similar share (63%) of parents among the least-educated couples (neither has a college degree) say they would prefer a three-year apprenticeship for their child.

Today’s education system caters to the elites who run it, not the common citizen on whose behalf it is supposed to be run.

ABOUT THE DATA

Sample of Parents

The parent portion of the American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey was conducted by YouGov between November 1–9, 2021, with a representative sample of 1,000 parents of children ages 12­–30 living in the United States. YouGov interviewed 1,048 parents of children 12–30 years old, who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, and education. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling from the full 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements (using the person weights on the public use file). The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles. The weights were then post-stratified on 2016 and 2020 presidential vote choice, and a four-way stratification of gender, age (four categories), race (four categories), and education (four categories), to produce the final weight.

Respondents were instructed:

This survey is about the American education system. It asks American parents to share their opinions about public education and describe the experiences of their children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary financial, logistical, and emotional constraints on families, students, and schools. In answering these questions, please think about the education system in general and without a pandemic—for instance, how it was before the pandemic struck or how you expect it to be once the pandemic has ended.

Sample of Young Adults

The young adult portion of the American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey was conducted by YouGov between November 1–11, 2021, with a representative sample of 1,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. YouGov interviewed 1,030 respondents, 18–30 years old, who were then matched down to a sample of 1,000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, and region. The frame was constructed by stratified sampling of age 28–80 of the full 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) one-year sample with selection within strata by weighted sampling with replacements (using the person weights on the public use file). The matched cases were weighted to the sampling frame using propensity scores. The matched cases and the frame were combined and a logistic regression was estimated for inclusion in the frame. The propensity score function included age, gender, race/ethnicity, years of education, and region. The propensity scores were grouped into deciles of the estimated propensity score in the frame and post-stratified according to these deciles. The weights were then post-stratified on a four-way stratification of gender, age (three categories), race (four categories), and education (four categories), to produce the final weight.

Respondents were instructed:

This survey is about the American education system. It asks young Americans to share their opinions about public education and describe their own educational experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary financial, logistical, and emotional constraints on families, students, and schools. In answering these questions, please think about the education system in general and without a pandemic—for instance, how it was before the pandemic struck or how you expect it to be once the pandemic has ended.

Demographic Variables

“Class” is defined by education and income:

  • “Lower” (N= 173 [parents]): less than a four-year degree and household income below $30K; or did not report household income and do not have a high-school diploma.
  • “Working” (N= 309 [parents]): less than a four-year degree and household income $30K-$80K; or did not report household income and have either a high-school diploma or some college but no degree.
  • “Middle” (N= 378 [parents]): four-year degree or more and household income $30K-$80K; or household income $80K-$150K; or did not report household income and have a 2-year or 4-year college degree.
  • “Upper” (N= 117 [parents]): household income above $150K; or do not report household income and have a post-graduate degree.

Respondents with a four-year college degree or more but household income below $30K are excluded from analyses using the “Class” variable.

 

“Child’s education completion” is defined by enrollment status, enrollment history, and educational attainment of a parent’s child (age 12–3):

  • “Currently Enrolled” (N= 470 [parents]): child is currently enrolled in an educational program
  • “Completed” (N= 188 [parents]): child is not currently enrolled in an educational program but has enrolled in a post-secondary education program in the past and attained the degree or credential associated with the highest level of post-secondary program they have attended (e.g., attained a four-year degree and enrolled in a college or university, attained a training certification and enrolled in a career training program, etc.)
  • “Not Completed” (N= 189 [parents]): child is not currently enrolled in an educational program and has enrolled in a post-secondary education program in the past but has not attained the degree or credential associated with the highest level of post-secondary program they have attended (e.g., enrolled in a community college and attained a training certification, enrolled in a career training program and attained a high school diploma, etc.)
  • “Never Pursued” (N= 153 [parents]): child is not currently enrolled in an educational program and has never enrolled in any post-secondary education program

 

“Assortative mating” is defined by the educational attainment of a respondent parent and their child’s other parent:

  • “Double Post-Grad” (N= 54 [parents]): both the respondent parent and their child’s other parent have post-graduate degrees
  • “Double College” (N= 168 [parents]): both the respondent parent and their child’s other parent have bachelor’s degrees and no more than one has a post-graduate degree
  • “Single College” (N= 223 [parents]): only the respondent parent or their child’s other parent has a bachelor’s degree
  • “No College” (N= 554 [parents]): neither the respondent parent nor their child’s other parent has a bachelor’s degree

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