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The Belief That Drives Support for Public Education - Pacific Standard

The Belief That Drives Support for Public Education

Do you think almost everyone has the potential to excel?
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Jennifer Kirmes teaches science class at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Kirmes teaches science class at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Remember the last time you were asked to vote on a tax increase to bolster the budget of your local schools? What influenced your decision?

Whether you, or members of your family, have school-age children was a likely consideration. As was the degree to which you feel overburdened by taxes.

But new research suggests another fundamental factor played a big role: Whether you believe all children, or just a few, have what it takes to excel.

"People's lay theories about intellectual potential drive their positions on education," Singapore-based researcher Krishna Savani, Aneeta Rattan of the London Business School, and Carol Dweck of Stanford University write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

They report that, in three studies, "the more people believed that nearly everyone has high potential, the more they viewed education as a fundamental human right." What's more, this held true after factoring in their political ideology.

The first study featured 201 United States residents recruited online. They were asked to indicate where they stood on a scale of one ("almost all people have the potential to become highly intelligent") to 20 ("only some people have the potential to become highly intelligent"). They were also asked "In general, how much do you think people can improve their intelligence over time?"

Finally, all participants gave demographic information, including their political leanings, and responded to five statements asserting that all children have the right to "the highest quality education possible."

"The more people believed that everyone has high intellectual potential, the more they construed education as a basic right," the researchers report. In contrast, their attitude toward education was not significantly influenced by their beliefs on whether intelligence is fixed or malleable.

"The more people believed that nearly everyone has high potential, the more they viewed education as a fundamental human right."

Not surprisingly, liberals were more likely than conservatives to consider education a right, but beliefs on the universality of intellectual potential shaped their feelings about the subject above and beyond their political orientation.

A second study replicated those results, and additionally found "the more people viewed education as a right, the more they opposed reducing the public's investment in education." This remained true even after factoring in "a number of beliefs and motivations related to people's tendency to legitimize inequality and to support the existing system."

This is important news for policymakers who hope to increase support for public education—and for the children who would benefit from high-quality public schools. Campaigns to convince citizens to support school-related bond measures may be more effective if they convincingly convey the concept that all kids have great potential.

At least, that's what the researchers' final study suggests. It featured 429 Americans recruited online. They read one of two versions of a short news article—one that said scientific research had shown nearly everyone has high intellectual potential, or another that claimed the opposite.

Those who read the first were more likely to view education as a fundamental right, and "more opposed to reducing public investment in education," the researchers write. They were also more likely to express concern about poor student scores, presumably because they viewed them as a failing of the system, rather than of the individual.

Scholarship funds that depend on raising money from the public may also want to keep these results in mind. A mind is a terrible thing to waste only if you're convinced it holds the promise of greatness.

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