To mark the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Education Next released their annual public opinion poll on the state of education.

One of the most interesting aspects of this poll is the grades Americans assign to the nation’s local and national schools.

In terms of the nation’s schools as a whole, Americans aren’t impressed. Only 25 percent gave them a grade of A or B – a fact that hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.

By contrast, more than half of all Americans are continuing to give their local schools high marks. (Chart)

Public Opinion on Schools

Such a consistent trend leaves me scratching my head. When 12th grade national reading and math proficiency measure at 37 and 25 percent respectively, it’s not difficult to see why confidence in the nation’s schools as a whole is low.

But why do Americans have much more confidence in their local schools?

One answer to this question may be self-interest. After all, property values are linked to the quality of schools, and no one wants to see a decline in the former through badmouthing the latter.

Another possibility may be lack of transparency. Even if an individual is willing to spend hours of time digging through statistics and documents, it can be very difficult to learn a school’s proficiency scores or discover what types of books they require students to read. As such, many communities may not realize that a class of graduating seniors is actually unprepared for the rigors of higher education.

But that lack of transparency may be linked to another factor, namely, the decline of the local school.

Several years ago, Professor Christopher Berry discovered that the average public school now has around 450 students, whereas a hundred years before it had 50 or less. This increase is due in part to population growth, but also to district consolidation, which nixed many small schools from local neighborhoods.

While such a change provided students with more extracurricular activities, it removed the school from the watchful accountability of parents and the community.

An ancient Jewish prophet once wrote, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” If America wants to improve her education system, do we first need to make sure parents and communities have the information they need to recognize that their local schools might not be as great as they think?

Image Credit: Rafal Zych