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Bridging the Divide: What the Public Is Telling Educators Could Help Resus

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These are not the best of times for educators or education reformers. Educators are frustrated by an apparent paucity of understanding and support, as evidenced by rising criticisms and a wave of failing referendums. Reformers see their grand designs unraveling in communities from Colorado to Connecticut as parents and taxpayers join more traditional advocates of the status quo.

It's a particularly good time, therefore, to stand back and re-examine goals and strategies. We at the Public Agenda Foundation in New York City have very current information on how Americans feel about education reform, information we believe is essential to resuscitating reform that otherwise may be drowning.

Founded in 1975 by Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization to study such issues, Public Agenda has for the past half-dozen years built a reputation on interpreting the nuances and subtleties of public opinion on the issue of education reform. In so doing we have identified misperceptions and highlighted discontinuities between the public's agenda and that of reform leaders.

Reviewing the situation recently, we realized that despite all our previous intensive research with multiple constituencies across the nation, we still had fundamental questions. Why, we asked, is there so much opposition to reform, not only from educators who might feel threatened but also from parents? And why is there so little support from the citizenry at large? Why are referendums and legislative initiatives going down in flames, often ignited by a bizarre coalition of left-leaning advocates of "political correctness" and right-leaning adherents of "values"?

Convinced there was more to learn, in the summer of 1994 we conducted focus groups in Birmingham, Ala.; Philadelphia; Minneapolis; and Des Moines, along with a national, random-sample survey of 1,100 Americans. We included an oversampling of parents with children in school, African-American parents, and parents identified as traditional Christians. The resulting report, released in early October, was titled "First Things First: What Americans Expect From the Public Schools" (See Education Week, 10/12/94).

Analyzing that research, along with our other recent studies in several individual states, we discovered something old and something new.

The "something old" was further evidence of what we had found in previous research: extraordinarily strong support among Americans for higher educational standards and expectations. They strongly favor clear guidelines on what children should learn and what teachers should teach. Eighty-seven percent believe students should not graduate from high school without writing and speaking English well, and seven in 10 favor raising standards of promotion from grade school to junior high.

People believe that by asking more, you get more. They don't believe in passing kids from grade to grade, or in letting them graduate without evidence of achievement. They oppose giving "A's for effort."

We also found that African-American parents and traditional Christian parents share most of the same concerns about the public schools, and they support most of the same solutions. In fact, African-American parents are by any measure even more dissatisfied than others with their children's schools and more concerned that standards in their communities' schools are too low. They neither want nor expect the schools to make allowances for their children.

The "something new" we discovered may explain why this broad base of potential support has not been translated into positive public engagement, for we found fundamental differences between how educators and the public view the schools and school reform. Our conclusion: Until the views of the public and of society's leaders, including educators, are better aligned, and until these groups start listening meaningfully to one another, progress is unlikely.

First, educators and the public hold fundamentally different views about how the schools are doing. Educators generally believe the schools are doing pretty well under the circumstances, while the public finds their local schools better than schools elsewhere, but nowhere near as good as they should be.

An indication of the gulf between these groups is exemplified by findings from a study we conducted in Connecticut, where 68 percent of the educators said they believe schools today are better than when they were in school, while just 16 percent of the public share that optimistic view.

The differences in how these groups analyze the problem are equally dramatic. Educators often perceive a breakdown of the social contract whereby each generation supports the education of the next, a breakdown they sometimes attribute to public complacency, taxpayer selfishness, and, in the case of inner cities, even to racism. They often see the solution in terms of more money, smaller classes, and extra help for students with various special needs.

Contrary to what many educators believe, the public values education as much as ever. It also strongly supports the goal of racial integration and believes that every child deserves an equal education. But it also believes intensely that while the schools haven't created today's problems, they are badly off track in addressing them. People suspect that many of these problems have little to do with money, and that until they are addressed, more money will in fact be wasted.

But the disconnects aren't only between educators and the public; there are equally wide gaps between the public's priorities and the reform agenda. Such differences may well explain why the public's overwhelming support for higher standards has not translated into support for school reform.

We found three major reasons for this lack of support. One is that the public's chief concern about our schools--making them safe, orderly, and purposeful enough for learning to take place--is not being addressed by today's reform agenda or by today's reform leaders.

People see and read about schools in chaos--schools with little sense of order, respect, or discipline; schools where teachers appear to dress or act unprofessionally; schools in which discussions take place that people consider inappropriate for the classroom; and schools increasingly infested with drugs and violence.

How, people ask, can learning take place in such a disaster zone? And shouldn't this problem be fixed before any academic-reform agenda is tackled?

It's difficult to overstate the force of public opinion on this issue. Almost nine Americans in 10 believe that dependability and discipline make a great deal of difference in how students learn, versus about half who believe that learning will improve by, for example, replacing multiple-choice tests with essay tests. Three-quarters of the population supports the permanent removal from school of students caught with weapons or drugs and the removal from the classroom of persistent troublemakers.

It's people's chief interest, and they fail to find it covered in most discussions of school reform.

Some people will respond that the media have overemphasized the problems of order and discipline or that certain proposed reforms will help address them. But the public is convinced that the learning environment is seriously deficient, and reformers need to deal with that fact, whether it be perception or reality.

The second public view that is threatening support for reform is captured in responses to the question "Which student is more likely to succeed?" Sixty-one percent of the public responded that the student from a stable and supportive family who goes to a poor school is more likely to succeed. Only 26 percent believe a good school can compensate for a troubled family. Moreover, 55 percent of the public say parents are doing a worse job than in the past. And if that's the case, some people reason, will it really do any good to pour more money into the schools or reform the curriculum? Americans across all racial and demographic categories support this concept.

The third factor at work is a strong suspicion among the public that reformers are promoting fuzzy and experimental teaching techniques at the expense of the basics. People believe that children should learn grammar and spelling before creative writing; that they should learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide by hand before depending on electronic devices to do it for them. And for most people, it doesn't seem cruel or wasteful for students to memorize the 50 state capitals and where they're located.

What's happening, we believe, is that people are discovering through their own interactions and experiences with young people that those basic skills are not there. When someone observes a supermarket checkout person who cannot make change, that to them is authentic assessment. It convinces people that the basic skills are not being taught or learned, and they regard those basics not only as important in themselves but also as the foundation for more advanced learning. To promote "higher-order thinking skills" when kids can't make change seems to the public wrongheaded if not absurd.

Public views on teaching techniques remain pretty traditional, and people are concerned about what they see as educational "fads." They tend to reject extremes of any kind; for example, they support neither corporal punishment nor the use of street language in teaching inner-city kids.

So when we talk about math reform, for example, we face a dichotomy. Over 80 percent of our math professionals favor the early use of calculators; only one in 10 Americans agrees.

In contrast to their concern about teaching techniques, the public is less preoccupied with debates of such issues as sex and aids education, multicultural experiences and stereotyping, and school prayer. They also go beyond what I have space to cover here. For purposes of this exposition, let me say only that people are far less concerned about these issues than they are about safety, order, and the basics.

It's also worth adding that while teachers remain generally well regarded, we found what seems to be some diminution of public support. We think that people's doubts grow out of a perceived lack of discipline and order in the classroom, and a perception that some teachers are more anxious to be pals with kids than to be role models. People cite good teachers and an orderly learning environment as the most important factors needed for children to learn. But 54 percent say teachers are doing only a "fair" or "poor" job dealing with discipline, while only 36 percent question teacher performance on academic matters.

The key issue, of course, is what to do with this information, which seems to me to be practical, commonsensical, non-ideological, and intellectually consistent.

In fact, whether we believe people are correct in their views is beside the point. These are strongly held views by the people who pay the taxes, pass or defeat the referendums, and elect members of schools boards and state legislatures. If we want to improve our schools, we had better take their views into account.

Educators and education reformers need to consider at least three possible alternative responses. Any one of these choices, or a combination, could be appropriate in any particular situation.

One option is to decide that the public's concerns require genuine change in the leadership agenda. This might mean expanding that agenda to incorporate such items as safety and discipline and programs in parenting skills. It might mean a more overt emphasis on basics and possibly re-examining or delaying some of the more innovative teaching techniques until a successful foundation has been laid and the public is more receptive.

Another option is for leaders to determine after an honest and candid soul-searching that the public's views stem from serious misunderstanding about what is really taking place in the schools and to respond, therefore, with better, more effective communications that correct these misperceptions. That doesn't mean a new slogan or marginal repackaging; that approach has been tried in many communities and found wanting. It means real, thoughtful, and ongoing communication that acknowledges and addresses the public's concerns and priorities and explains clearly how schools are addressing them.

A third approach is for leaders to conclude that the public's point of view is in whole or in part mistaken, a conclusion that requires the exercise of true leadership--the slow, exacting process of building a constituency for ideas that are worthwhile but not popular. This is the most difficult path but the only honest one if leaders conclude that their approach, and not the public's, is the one that will best help children and their families.

We at Public Agenda present this research in the hope that educators and reform leaders will read it carefully, thoughtfully, and objectively in an honest effort to understand what the public is saying.

Is the public right or wrong? Perceptive or wrongheaded? Whatever one concludes, and whichever course of action is adopted, the public's perceptions should not be dismissed lightly.

Educators and reformers must listen to and respect what the public is saying. For change will not occur until the public becomes an equal and valued partner in the effort.

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