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Public Awareness of Need To Improve Schools Gauged

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Even after exposure to an intensive public-awareness campaign on the need to improve education and workforce skills, many parents still believe that their local public schools are adequate and that problem schools only exist elsewhere, a new study suggests.

The study examined the effectiveness of a communications campaign entitled "Help Wanted" conducted last fall in three cities--Hartford, Conn., Indianapolis, and Phoenix. The campaign was intended to raise public awareness about the economic consequences of an undereducated and undertrained workforce.

In each of the cities, the campaign involved cooperation among businesses, higher-education institutions, community groups, and local television stations and newspapers.

Throughout the campaigns, which typically lasted four to six weeks, television stations and newspapers devoted coverage to the Help Wanted program and to a broad array of education reform and workforce-preparation issues.

In Indianapolis, for example, the campaign received extensive coverage for about six weeks from a local station, WTHR-TV, and from The Indianapolis Star. The coverage in Hartford and Phoenix was less intense, but it still involved frequent news stories, editorials, and public service announcements.

Mixed Results

The study, "An Evaluation of Help Wanted," is based on before-and after telephone surveys of about 400 local residents exposed to the communications campaign in each city.

The surveys found, perhaps not surprisingly, that in Indianapolis, the city with the most media coverage of the campaign, there was the greatest increase in public knowledge about literacy, education reform, and workforce issues.

"The purpose of the project was not really to convince the public that any one reform agenda is the right one," said Jean Johnson, vice president of the Public Agenda Foundation, a New York-based public research organization that is one of the sponsors of the campaign.

"The purpose is to lay the problem before the public," she added. "We have found a real gap in the ways leaders in business and education are talking about these issues and the way the general public understands them. This is really to help people understand something that is being debated at leadership levels."

In Indianapolis and Hartford, the campaign succeeded in raising public awareness that "the lack of basic skills poses a threat to the economy," the survey found.

The residents were also polled about certain education-reform proposals, such as extending the school year. Support for that idea increased by 12 percentage points among Indianapolis survey respondents after the campaign, and by 6 percentage points among Hartford respondents.

However, the campaign produced no attitude changes on some issues. For example, 52 percent of Phoenix residents surveyed supported the idea of paying teachers and principals based on student performance. After the campaign, in which the issue was explored in news stories, the same level of support existed.

Local Schools Earn Praise

The study suggests that the campaign was less successful than organizers hoped in raising concerns among middle-class residents about the state of their public schools.

"Despite intensive media coverage of educational shortcomings, large numbers of residents in each campaign city continued to rate their local schools very highly," the report states.

Fifty-six percent of Hartford residents, 38 percent of Indianapolis residents, and 36 percent of Phoenix residents surveyed gave their local public schools a grade of A or B. No more than 25 percent in any of the cities gave their schools a D or F.

"The next communications hurdle is raising the public's standards for what education really needs to be in the 21st century," the report states.

The Help Wanted program is spearheaded nationally by the Public Agenda Foundation in cooperation with the Business-Higher Education Forum and the Business Roundtable.

Additional Help Wanted campaigns have begun or will begin this year in Seattle; Austin, Tex.; Flint, Mich.; and in the states of Delaware and Florida.

Additional information about the survey report and the program is available from the Public Agenda Foundation, 6 East 39th St., New York, N.Y. 200/6; telephone: (212) 686-6610.

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