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Poll Finds Public Endorsement of School Reforms

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Washington--The latest edition of a national opinion poll has found that the American public largely agrees with the major findings of several recent blue-ribbon panels on education: The quality of the nation's public schools has declined, and broad reforms--including merit pay for teachers and a tougher curriculum--are needed.

The survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization early in May, reported that 87 percent of those who were familiar with the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education agreed with its findings.

More significantly, according to the survey report, even those who had not yet heard of the commission's recommendations, which were released on April 26, were critical of the schools. Although four-fifths of those surveyed were "uninformed" about the report, 74 percent of that group agreed that "the quality of education in the U.S. public schools is only fair and not improving."

The survey, "The 15th Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," also found support for some of the commission's specific recommendations. Those polled were in favor, by a two-to-one margin, of paying individual teachers based on the "quality of [their] work." Seventy-two percent said schools should make computers available to students. And a majority of those polled agreed that neither elementary nor high-school students are now required to work hard enough "in school and on homework."

The results indicate that "the commission report had not substantially changed the views of the public about public education," wrote the authors of the survey, which was sponsored by the Phi Delta Kappa education fraternity. "One reason, perhaps, is that the public already agreed with many of the commission's main conclusions," they wrote.

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, who appointed the excellence commission and has been promoting its findings in appearances around the country, said he was "encouraged" and "gratified" by the poll's evidence of support for reform.

"I believe the reason the commission report has received such an overwhelming response is that it did strike a harmonious chord with the general public. We have more momentum right now for improving the schools than we've had in many, many years," the Secretary said in an interview last week.

Two of the commission's recommendations--that both the school day and the school year should be lengthened--did not receive overwhelming support from those polled, however. Forty percent favored adding 30 days of instruction to the school year, while 49 percent were opposed. And 41 percent supported lengthening the school day by one hour, while 48 percent were opposed.

In addition, the pollsters found evidence of growing support for school vouchers, a controversial mechanism for promoting parental choice among types of schools. The concept of vouchers was not mentioned in the commission report.

Fifty-one percent of respondents favored a system whereby "the government allots a certain amount of money for each child," with which parents "can send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose."

The voucher system was supported by 48 percent of public-school parents and 64 percent of private-school parents.

When the question on vouchers was asked in 1971, it received a 38-percent favorable response; in 1981, it was favored by 43 percent of those queried.

Annette Y. Kirk, who represented parents on the 18-member excellence commission, said she interpreted the interest in vouchers as "parents questioning the way schools are funded."

"I think parents who are most interested in the schools are probably most interested in choice among schools as well, and I'd like to see a school district get interested enough in vouchers to try a pilot project," she said.

The survey, which asks the public to "grade" the quality of local schools each year, found a resumption of the rating decline that began in 1974 and leveled off slightly in 1980. This year, 31 percent of those polled gave their local schools an A or B grade, compared with 37 percent last year. A plurality of respondents, 32 percent, gave the schools a grade of C, while 13 percent gave them a grade of D, and 7 percent gave them a failing grade.

Quality of Public Schools

The quality of the public schools nationally was judged more harshly. Nineteen percent of the general public gave the schools a grade of A or B, and 22 percent gave them a D or failing grade. And of those who had heard of the excellence commission's report, 12 percent gave the nation's schools a grade of A or B.

Regarding the latter finding, the report cautions that "those individuals who are already strongly critical of the schools would be more likely than others to pay attention to media reports that say that 'the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."'

The survey also found greater interest in increasing taxes for improving the quality of schools nationally than for improving the local schools. In response to one question on taxes, only 39 percent of those polled favored raising taxes to aid their local schools. Responding to a second question on taxes, asked later in the survey, 58 percent were in favor of increasing taxes to "raise the standard of education in the United States."

As the authors interpreted the two answers, "The public would obviously like to have the federal government contribute more to help finance the public schools. And ..., respondents see the need for raising the educational standard throughout the nation."

Discipline is Major Problem

Since the poll was first conducted in 1969, discipline has been identified as the schools' major problem each year, with the exception of 1971, when finance was named the biggest problem. This year, 25 percent of those polled again cited "lack of discipline" as the schools' biggest problem, followed by use of drugs (18 percent), poor curriculum and standards (14 percent), and lack of proper financial support (13 percent).

The pollsters have continually attempted to "shed further light" on the discipline problem, finding last year that 39 percent of respondents considered it a "very serious" problem. In the current survey, they asked for the causes of schools' discipline problems.

The finding: "Those identified with the public schools can take comfort from the fact that the chief blame is laid on the home [72 percent], with disrespect for law and order throughout society ranking second [54 percent]."

Other findings of the Gallup poll:

Teachers' salaries. Thirty-five percent of respondents agreed that teachers' salaries are too low, and only 8 percent said they were too high. Thirty-one percent said salaries were "about right," while 26 percent said they had no opinion. Half of the respondents said they fa-vored higher pay for teachers in shortage areas, such as mathematics and science. And 61 percent agreed that "each teacher [should] be paid on the basis of the quality of his or her work," although 31 percent favored paying teachers on a "standard-scale basis."

Teaching as a career. Only 45 percent of the respondents said they would like their children to choose teaching as a career, compared with 75 percent in 1969. The reasons, in descending order, included: low pay; discipline problems; unrewarding, "thankless" work; and the low prestige of teachers. The qualities most often desired in teachers, in descending order, included: the ability to communicate, understand, and "relate"; patience; the ability to discipline; high moral character; and friendliness, personality, and sense of humor. Intelligence was ranked eighth in the list of desired qualities.

Public knowledge about schools. More than a third of those polled said they knew "very little" or "nothing" about their local schools. And the proportion of respondents who said they knew "quite a lot" about the schools showed an increase of only 4 percentage points over the 1969 level, from 18 percent to 22 percent. "These percentages indicate that the public-relations efforts of schools have not been very successful in reaching members of the public who do not have children attending the schools but who, nevertheless, can and do vote in school-bond elections," wrote the authors of the report.

Required courses. Support was expressed for requiring all high-school students to take courses in mathematics, English, history and government, science, and business. For the college-bound, 50 percent of respondents said a foreign language should be required, with Spanish mentioned most often (56 percent), followed by French (34 percent) and German (16 percent).

Instruction in "special areas." More than seven in 10 of those polled agreed that the school curriculum should include driver education, computer training, and education about drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, respondents favored instruction in "parenting" (58 percent), the dangers of nuclear waste (56 percent), race relations (56 percent), communism and socialism (51 percent), and the dangers of nuclear war (46 percent).

Computers in the schools. Only 45 percent of those polled said their children's schools had made computers available for students' use, although 23 percent said they were uncertain. Of the 32 percent of parents who said computers were not available to their children, 81 percent said they would like their schools to install computers.

The importance of higher education. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents said a college education is "very important," an increase of 12 percentage points since 1978. Among minority parents, 68 percent said college was very important.

Testing. Seventy-five percent of the respondents agreed that students should be promoted from grade to grade "only if they can pass examinations." A similar percentage agreed that "students in the local schools [should] be given national tests, so that their educational achievement could be compared with students in other communities."

Satisfaction with the curriculum. Seventy-four percent of public-school parents said they were satisfied that their children were learning what they should be learning, although 20 percent answered that they were dissatisfied. Among private-school parents, 82 percent expressed satisfaction, and 9 percent said they were not satisfied.

Education in the year 2000. In answer to a question about what schools are likely to be teaching 17 years from now, responses included: Students will have access to computers (76 percent); more importance will be given to vocational training (76 percent); students will be taught how to think (70 percent); and the high-school curriculum will be more difficult, encompassing areas now taught in college (65 percent).

The results of the survey are included in the September issue of the magazine Phi Delta Kappan.

Information about ordering copies of the survey can be obtained from: Phi Delta Kappa, P.O. Box 789, Bloomington, Ind. 47402; (812) 339-1156.

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