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Public Backing For Schools Is Called Tenuous

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Most Americans want public education to work, but their support for schools is fragile and "disintegrates at the slightest probing," a report issued last week by Public Agenda warns.

"In the battle over the future of public education, the public is essentially 'up for grabs,"' concludes the report from the influential public-opinion research organization. "Neither the advocates of public education nor the proponents of private alternatives should confidently count the American public on their side."

The report, "Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of School Reform," is a follow-up to "First Things First," which gained widespread notice after its release last year by New York City-based Public Agenda. That study--which found that the public demands safety, order, and basic skills and is mistrustful of many educational innovations--generated a wave of interest among educators in understanding and meeting the public's concerns. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.)

The new report examines why support for public schools is in jeopardy, what people mean when they talk about "the basics," how the public feels about raising academic standards, and what Americans think about the pursuit of knowledge itself.

'False Complacency'

The report contradicts the widely held belief, reflected annually in the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup survey of public attitudes, that Americans are generally satisfied with their own local schools. Public Agenda found that their level of satisfaction fades quickly when asked more specific questions.

A false impression based on superficially positive reactions toward the schools may lull educators into "a dangerous and false complacency," the report cautions.

Fifty-five percent of the public and 71 percent of parents with children in public schools initially gave schools in their communities a rating of "good" or "excellent," Public Agenda found. But when researchers probed deeper, with questions about discipline, academic standards, and whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth, satisfaction plummeted.

The report includes results of a national telephone survey last summer of 1,200 Americans, including 439 parents with children in public schools and 237 public school teachers. It also includes findings from a mail survey of 734 decisionmakers in business, government, the media, and other institutions and the views of 417 education administrators.

The findings also draw on the results of focus groups conducted across the country.

Among the highlights:

  • Nearly six in 10 parents with children in public schools would send them to private schools if they had the money.
  • Almost half the respondents did not believe earning a diploma from their local high school guaranteed that a student had mastered the basics.
  • Only about a fourth of the population can be described as "lovers of learning" who advocate, for example, teaching European and Asian history and classic literature.
  • Eleven percent of teachers picked academics as the most important factor in career success; 50 percent cited inner drive and 33 percent backed knowing how to get along with others.

'Basics First'

Public Agenda examined attitudes toward current private schools, in part, to address the assertion that educational woes in public schools in large part stem from social conditions. The questions also were formulated because many school critics are calling for private school vouchers.

The belief in the superiority of private schools, the study found, arises from their perceived success at teaching the academic basics and maintaining order and discipline.

The admiration of private education, the report says, coexists in the minds of Americans "alongside a public desire to save America's public schools."

But when asked how they would achieve that goal, respondents offered a variety of solutions. Nearly half would rather fix the existing structure of public schools than move to vouchers or private management. In general, the report concludes, the public's attitudes about these policy options is changeable and inconsistent.

Public support for teaching the educational basics--defined as the ability to read, write, and spell the English language and to do basic arithmetic--is nearly universal, the report found.

That view, however, does not mean that people want education to stop at that level. Eight in 10 respondents now view computer skills as "absolutely essential."

"While some reformers fear that the public means 'basics only,"' the report says, "what the public really wants is 'basics first."'

Support for Standards

The public also supports a broader social agenda for schools, including teaching good work habits and values such as honesty and tolerance of others.

Because teaching academics is the sole province of the schools, however, people are especially frustrated when schools cannot accomplish this mission.

"It is the schools' minimum contractual obligation," the report stresses, "and people are dismayed to encounter youngsters who have attended public schools, even graduated from public schools, without these basic skills."

Americans strongly and consistently support higher standards, the study found, even when they know the possible negative consequences for students. This support does not waver, for instance, when questions are worded differently to probe attitudes about giving tests, withholding diplomas, toughening grading, or establishing clear guidelines for what young people should learn.

The public believes educators themselves undermine standards, however, by "moving kids along" who do not deserve promotion.

Almost no one believes American children face too much pressure at school, the study found. Only 13 percent of the public and 3 percent of decisionmakers thought students were expected to learn too much.

At the same time, Americans "do not place a high value on knowledge for its own sake," the report concludes. Instead, they value practical skills and knowledge, and mistrust highly educated people.

Demand for Change

Educators and policymakers responded last week to the release of the widely anticipated report with varied interpretations of its findings.

Keith B. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association, said it underscores the urgency of improving schools. But the report also demonstrates "the big myth out there that private schools have something magical," he said. "The grass is always greener."

Gary Marx, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, remarked that schools are struggling because society has changed dramatically.

"We're seeing more and more children coming to school who have been raised by other children, who have been nurtured by television, who in some cases are suffering from a lack of attention and get little help with their homework," he said. "I think in some cases there is tendency to look for someone to blame for the things people may not have done as parents."

To Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit Washington-based group that advocates privatization and school choice, the report sent a clear message. "There is a major concern and a major demand coming from ordinary people that we must change things," she said.

In partnership with the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, Public Agenda plans to convene town meetings in eight diverse communities next year to discuss the public's expectations for its schools.

"For very well-intentioned and well-designed reform plans ever to be implemented in the current political culture, you need local buy-in," said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the iel. " The locals have been bypassed, and that was an egregious tactical error."

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