by William Sederburg, Vice President for Public Policy and Director, Public Opinion Research Institute

In 1982 the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) created Project Outreach to conduct statewide public opinion surveys measuring public attitudes about K–12 education. As a result, a statewide survey of 800 residents has been conducted each year since then with the exception of 1988.1 The 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll, eleventh in this series, adds important data to a growing collection of information about K–12 education in the state.


The 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll measured public opinion on a variety of issues of importance to the people of Michigan. The major objectives of the survey were to

  • provide longitudinal data about the public’s attitude toward K–12 public education,
  • measure the public’s expectation of the education reforms adopted in December 1993,
  • expand the public’s grading of public education by including outcomes and educational process factors,
  • develop a better understanding of how Michigan residents conceptualize different approaches to improving public education, and
  • measure awareness and support of major initiatives taken by the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence and the Michigan Partnership for New Education.

Grading the Schools

The 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll continued the tradition of asking the public to grade their local public schools, using the traditional grading system (A = excellent, B = good, C = average, D = poor, E/F = failing). This survey found that the percentage of A and B grades decreased dramatically from the 1992 poll. (See Exhibit 1.) A weighted average scoring technique2 was used to calculate the overall grade point average (GPA), which is a 2.3 or a C+ grade for the 1993–94 survey. This grade is down from the B– the schools received in the 1992 survey.

The grades given the schools vary according to sample subgroups. Exhibit 2 compares the percentage of A or B grades given by selected subgroups in the 1993–94 survey with those in the 1992 Michigan Education Poll.

The most high grades were given by individuals having more than a college degree (59 percent gave their schools an A or B grade), educators (56 percent), and individuals earning more than $60,000 per year (56 percent). The fewest high grades were given by Detroiters (12 percent), African Americans (16 percent), and parents of private school children (31 percent).

The lower grades given to the public schools in the 1993–94 poll may be due to the media focus on education reform during the past year. Reformers stressing the need to change public education have had a significant effect on public opinion.

The 42 percent giving schools an A or B grade matches the 42 percent giving the schools an A or B grade in 1982, the year that the national report entitled A Nation at Risk drew attention to the shortcomings of the public school system. The most dramatic decline in the grades given to the public schools is among African Americans and Detroit residents.

The decline in the grades for public schools is consistent with the public’s belief that the quality of education is getting worse. In 1992 more people believed that schools were getting better (25 percent) than believed they were getting worse (21 percent). In the 1993–94 survey there are more people who believe schools are getting worse (25 percent) than there are people who believe they are getting better (19 percent). Exhibit 3 shows how perceptions about school quality have changed from 1982–1992.

People who see improvement in the schools tend to give more high grades. Of respondents giving their public schools an A or B for overall quality, 36 percent said their schools are improving.

The subgroups with the most positive attitudes about changes in the quality of K–12 education are residents of small towns (24 percent said education quality is improving), northern Michigan residents (27 percent), and educators (29 percent). Detroit residents (45 percent said quality is getting worse), residents of other large cities (34 percent), and African Americans (43 percent) are the subgroups most negative about the quality of education.

Grading Educational Outcomes

In addition to asking residents to give schools an overall grade for education quality, the 1993–94 survey asked respondents to grade their schools on five educational outcomes and five characteristics of the education process in their school district. Exhibit 4 lists the percentage of A and B grades given to the schools for graduating students with certain skills. There was little variation in the grades given by respondents for the five educational outcomes.

While the grades did not vary much between outcomes, there was significant variation in the grades given by individuals and subgroups. Detroiters consistently gave their schools the fewest high grades for educational outcomes. Whereas only 5 percent of Detroiters gave their schools an A or B for the science skills of graduating seniors, 43 percent of central Michigan residents and 39 percent of western Michigan residents gave their schools an A or B grade for science.

Respondents employed in education differed from the entire sample in their evaluation of the mathematics skills of graduating seniors. Whereas 30 percent of the general sample gave schools an A or B for mathematics scores, 43 percent of educators gave the schools an A or B for these scores.

Grading the Educational Process

The public also was asked to grade five different aspects of the educational process that the MPNE identified as essential to successful schooling (see Exhibit 5).

In general, educators were more positive about the educational process than the general public was. Educators gave more high grades to the local public schools than did the total sample for providing programs for students at risk (22 percent more than the total sample) and for gaining the support of parents (21 percent more than the total sample).

Grades given to schools for providing special programs for students at risk varied by the type of school district. Ironically, Detroit and big city schools, which tend to have large at-risk student populations, received the fewest high marks (see Exhibit 6).

Overall, the public gave schools better grades for the education process than for educational outcomes. Whereas the average percentage of A and B grades for education outcomes is 32 percent, the average percentage of A and B grades for the education process is 42 percent.

The State’s Role in Education

Passage of Proposal A ensures that funding will shift from being primarily a local responsibility to being a state responsibility. Consequently, state policymakers may be tempted to establish greater control over the educational system.

The 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll asked the public whether they believe that each of four activities is a legitimate state function or if the activity should be left to the local school district (see Exhibit 7).

Slightly more than one in four respondents (27 percent) believe the state should not play a role in any of the activities. In contrast, only 11 percent believe the state should do all four activities. The Michigan public remains committed to local control in education.

Approaches to Improving the Public Schools

Two approaches to improving education received much attention during the debate over education reform. One approach (referred to in this report as the choice/competition approach) was emphasized by Governor Engler in his September 1993 speech before the Michigan legislature. The governor stressed the value of offering parents increased choice in the schools their children can attend.

At the center of the governor’s reform proposal was schools of choice—allowing parents to choose school districts regardless of where they live—and the creation of charter schools. The legislature did not adopt schools of choice but did enact the country’s most flexible and innovative charter school legislation.

The second approach that policymakers discussed was to improve education by strengthening the current system (that is, the systems approach). This approach emphasized the need for the state to supply schools with adequate resources, adopt school improvement plans written by local educators, improve teacher education, and empower education professionals.

The Michigan Education Association endorsed this approach in its media campaign during the fall of 1993 when it promoted the state ensuring adequate monies for the schools, adoption of a core curriculum, school improvement plans, and empowering teachers with site-based decision making. To a large extent, the legislature adopted the systems approach in an effort to improve education.

The management approach, which emphasized school management as a means to improve schools, did not receive much attention during the late 1993 debate but has reemerged in 1994. Instead of strengthening the components of the education delivery system, advocates of this approach talked about achieving greater efficiency in the delivery of education services—consolidating school districts, monitoring school districts more closely, setting state standards, and holding schools accountable for attaining the objectives, for example. The legislature is currently debating a number of efficiency measures.

The 1993–94 survey described each education improvement approach and asked respondents to choose one of the three approaches (see Exhibit 8).

A plurality of the public prefer the management approach to improving the schools. Respondents over the age of 55 were more likely to prefer the management option (37 percent) than were respondents younger than age 35 (26 percent). Younger respondents preferred the systems approach (28 percent) by a slight margin.

A positive relation exists between education levels and a preference for the systems approach: Whereas only 20 percent of individuals with a high school diploma or less preferred a systems approach, 37 percent of individuals with more than a college degree prefer the systems approach. People employed in education were particularly supportive of the systems option (47 percent).

Support for the management approach was highest among residents of rural towns (41 percent), residents of the Thumb (44 percent), western Michigan residents (36 percent), and parents of children in private schools (32 percent). Support for the management approach was lowest among people employed in education (15 percent), individuals earning more than $60,000 per year (17 percent), and residents of central Michigan (17 percent).

The results of two survey questions that allowed respondents to select the choice/competition option show that 15 to 20 percent of the respondents consistently chose this option. In the question asking respondents to select one of three approaches to improving education, 18 percent selected the choice/competition approach. Responses to this question did not vary much by subgroup, suggesting an ideological preference for this approach.

The choice/competition approach was preferred most by individuals employed by nonprofit organizations in the private sector (23 percent), parents of students in private schools (23 percent), residents of central Michigan (25 percent) and southeast Michigan (25 percent), and men (22 percent).

Supporters of the systems approach to education improvement gave higher grades to their public schools than did supporters of the management or choice/competition approaches. Those who prefer the choice approach are the most critical of the schools (see Exhibit 9). The results show that, at present, the public prefers the management approach to school improvement.

Effective State and Local Decision Making

One survey question asked respondents to choose which of four options state and local decision makers should use to decide how additional school aid dollars should be spent. Another question asked survey respondents to choose which of four similar options would be the most effective way for local school boards to improve education.

The first option in each question was intended to measure uncritical support for the education system. The second was to measure support for adopting and implementing the state’s reform agenda, and the third was to measure support for increased management of the schools. The final approach was to ensure support for greater choice.

When asked how the state should spend additional monies, 34 percent of the respondents said the state should require districts to meet state standards before giving them additional money. Only 8 percent believe the state should give money to the schools without placing restrictions on how the money must be used. Sixteen percent prefer that parents be given a voucher and allowed to decide what school their child will attend. Twenty-four percent believe the state should use the money to implement the core curriculum.

At the local level, the management approach received the highest support. Twenty-seven percent believe that local school board members should concentrate on meeting student performance standards. Fourteen percent think that local school boards should increase public support for the schools.

Twenty-two percent said school boards should implement the state’s core curriculum, and 18 percent want to see parents and students given more choice in the types of schools and courses offered. Exhibit 10 lists the percentage of people wanting the state to spend additional education funds in a particular way who chose a given way for local school boards to improve education.

This exhibit shows the support for the management option at the local level. This option was the first choice of people who said the state should set standards as a prerequisite for state dollars and the second choice among all other respondents. Supporters of a voucher were most consistent in their support for increasing choice at the local level. Increasing choice, however, was supported by only 12 to 16 percent of respondents who preferred nonvoucher options as the way the state should spend additional money.

Public Perception of the Effect of School Reform

In December 1993 the Michigan legislature adopted a number of changes in the school code. The 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll asked the public whether each of seven school reforms would improve the quality of local public school education a great deal, some, or not have much effect (see Exhibit 11).

Survey respondents have definite opinions about the effectiveness of various reforms. Adoption of a core curriculum was seen as the most effective of the reforms adopted, which may be a reflection of the advertising that came out in the fall of 1993 supporting the adoption of a core curriculum. School accreditation and charter schools were not seen as a very effective method for improving schools.

School Reports

In the fall of 1993 Governor Engler’s office, in cooperation with the MBLEE and the MDE, published reports detailing information about each school building in Michigan. This was the first time the state had published anything like a school “report card.” Because the data did not evaluate the schools, however, the data were published as “school reports.” Each school district in the state received a school report. In addition, copies of the data were available to the public.

Thirty-one percent of the public are aware of the school reports. People employed in education (52 percent) and individuals 35–54 years of age (51 percent) are most aware of the school reports.

When survey respondents were asked how much interest they had in eight kinds of information, they indicated that they are most interested in the percentage of high school graduates going on to college. They are least interested in the number of students coming from disadvantaged homes (see Exhibit 12).

Three of these eight information types are not currently included in the school report: how parents rate the schools, the degree of parental involvement in student conferences, and the difficulty of the school curriculum. Of the three, the public is most interested in the degree of parental involvement in student conferences.

The Michigan Partnership for New Education

The MPNE was created as a consortium of corporations, foundations, universities, and state government to institute a series of innovative schools throughout Michigan. These schools are to promote fundamental change in teaching, learning, assessment, and school management. Staff of the schools are encouraged to create and implement innovations that will improve education.

The MPNE has identified 25 partnership schools where exemplary educational practices and research will be implemented and that also will serve as resources for other schools that want to learn innovative practices.

Twenty-two percent of the public are aware of the MPNE. Awareness of the MPNE is greatest among people employed in education (42 percent).

While relatively few respondents have heard of the MPNE, there is broad support for the basic premise of the MPNE. Sixty-nine percent of respondents agree that “fundamental changes in teaching, learning, testing, and school management call for new approaches to teacher and administrator education.” Agreement with this statement is evident among all survey subgroups.

A majority (52 percent) of the respondents said that implementing innovative schools is a good idea (see Exhibit 13). Fifty percent of the sample support the use of state monies for professional development—an important component of the MPNE—while only 33 percent of the public oppose the use of state funds.

The “Keep the Promise” Campaign

The MBLEE, part of the national Business Roundtable, have sponsored a series of public service announcements encouraging citizen participation in local schools. The survey asked respondents whether they had heard of the media campaign. Twenty percent said they had heard of the advertisements. Of this 20 percent, 60 percent said the advertisements made them want to become more involved in improving the public schools.


The data from the 1993–94 Michigan Education Poll point to the following conclusions about what Michigan residents think of public education.

  • In this poll the public has given the quality of public education in Michigan lower marks than in 1992. This decline is probably due to the attention public schools have received during the educational reform debate. The decline is most dramatic among Detroit residents.
  • The public is nearly evenly divided on the best approach to use to improve the schools. Twenty-four percent prefer a systems approach, 30 percent prefer greater emphasis on management, and 18 percent prefer greater competition and choice. As efforts to improve education continue, there is likely to be spirited discussion among advocates of each approach.
  • The public expects that the reforms adopted by the Michigan legislature will improve the schools. The public views the adoption of a state core curriculum and allowing students to earn an endorsed diploma as the reforms most likely to be effective.
  • The public gives more high grades for different aspects of the educational process than for educational outcomes. Among outcomes, the most high grades were given for reading and writing skills (35 percent gave an A or B grade). Among different aspects of the education process, a safe environment earned the most high grades (50 percent gave an A or B grade).

Michigan residents give the public schools lower grades today than they did during the previous school year. The percentage of A and B grades are identical to the percentage of A and B grades given in 1982 when the need for education improvement was debated nationally. Nevertheless, the public is optimistic about the reforms enacted by the legislature last December.

The Michigan Education Poll finds the public divided about what approach to use to improve education. With the primary responsibility for funding schools shifted to the state, the debate over improvement strategies is likely to intensify. It remains to be seen if advocates of improving the system form a majority coalition with supporters of greater management or if advocates of choice coalesce with supporters of the management approach.

1This is the third year that private sponsors have underwritten the survey. The commitment of the Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence (MBLEE) and the Michigan Partnership for New Education (MPNE) to improving education enabled Public Sector Consultants (PSC) to conduct the 1993-94 surevey in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Education.
The Survey Instrument was developed by PSC and the MDE with significant input from a number of parties. Special thanks are extended to Dr. James Phelps of the MDE, who contributed the basic research design; Tom Vance, public relations specialist from The Upjohn Company (representing MBLEE); Henrietta Barnes of the MPNE; Jim Sandy, executive director of the MBLEE; Dr. Georgia VanAdenstine, Governor Engler’s education advisor; Dr. Pat richie of the Michigan Education Association; and a number of legislative staff members who contributed ideas and questions. Data from the survey are public information.
2Based on 4 points for an A, 3 for a B, 2 for a C, 1 for a D, and 0 for and E/F.

Copyright © 1994