what we talk about when we talk about schools

In his post on school choice, Scott Alexander makes the quip, “48% of Americans are satisfied with the education system in the US. My guess is 100% of Americans are satisfied with the grocery system in the US.” Whether or not the second statement is true (as Scott has noted, considerably less than 100% of Americans agree that lizardmen aren’t running the earth), it might be useful to think about why “Does our country have good schools” is a different kind of question from “Does our country have good grocery stores?”

The General Social Survey asked about respondents’ confidence in the school system in three years- 1991, 1998, and 2008. It does indeed look like the percentage of respondents saying they have a “Great Deal” or “Complete Confidence” in the nation’s school system has gone down in the last 25 years:


However, this is mostly due to respondents switching from “great deal” to “somewhat confident”; if you include “somewhat confident,” as well as “great deal” and “complete confidence,” the numbers have tugged up slightly over time.somewhat

Surprisingly, more educated respondents are slightly less confident in the schools:confidbyeduc

(I’d guess that the little spike at years=18 is for teachers; a large portion of the people with Master’s degrees in the country are teachers or otherwise working in education.)

Strong Republicans tend to be more skeptical of the schools than strong Democrats:


In contrast to black parents giving a relatively low opinion of their own child’s schools, black and American Indian respondents tend to express more confidence in the school system as a whole.byrace

In fact, feelings about race and racial politics seems to explain a lot of people’s opinions about the schools. For example, respondents who oppose school busing for desegregation (about 70% of the sample) also are less likely to be confident in the schools:


And respondents who think the nation spends “too much” money helping black people also indicate they do not approve of the school system:


For what it’s worth, people who don’t like the school system aren’t just generally curmudgeonish; people who describe themselves as “Very Happy” in general are not much more likely to express confidence in the nation’s schools:


Call it confirmation bias, but I’ll file this under “opinions about the American school system are mostly opinions about America.” If you think the country, particularly in its racial politics, has been going in the right direction, you tend to have a higher opinion of the schools.

I’d be interested in how answers to these questions have changed since 2008.

2 thoughts on “what we talk about when we talk about schools

  1. Mr. Toad:

    Have you seen this paper (http://economics.mit.edu/files/11948) about Chicago’s place-based affirmative action system? The authors seem to conclude that Chicago’s attempt to avoid explicit race conscious affirmative action has made things worse along every conceivable metric: aptitude, racial diversity, income diversity, etc. How does this place-based system feed into America’s desire to put black and white children in the same classrooms?


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