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Getting Inside the Public's Head

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What do people really mean when they rank education priority No. 1?

There are more than enough doomsayers predicting the apocalypse for public schools. We won't join them. We would, however, suggest that these are precarious times. We believe that education leaders need to better understand the attitudes of Americans toward the schools. And they need to act with that in mind.

We are a team of communicators and pollsters from three separate companies who have worked with the education reform community often over the past decade. We are parents and grandparents who care about schools and want to help, but we do not have our own agenda. We are Democrats and Republicans. We help educators and policymakers understand their audiences in order to build public support.

For nearly a year, polls have consistently showed that improving schools is the premier public concern, ahead of reducing crime, cutting taxes, or dealing with the economy. That often has been put in the "good news" category--"ah, the public is finally paying attention to our problems."

Indeed, many segments of the public are paying attention, and that is why the nation's politicians are paying attention, too.

We have found that the public strongly believes that schools can improve. But we also have found a growing level of public skepticism over whether schools will improve, particularly whether schools will produce anywhere near the kinds of changes that the politicians and reformers usually promise. And without improvements, that skepticism is turning into a belief that the schools, quite simply, have failed. Let us offer some data.

Nearly two years ago, we surveyed 2,700 parents in selected cities and states for the Education Commission of the States. We asked them this question: Which point of view comes closest to your own?

  • Some people believe only a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of our public schools will improve the quality of education for our kids.
  • Others believe the present system in our public schools just needs some minor tuning to improve the quality of education.
  • Still others think we should just leave the public schools alone.

Only 5 percent of these parents said "leave the schools alone," 52 percent said "minor adjustments," and 41 percent said "total overhaul." The data were from parents only and not nationally representative, but we found similar results when we did a statewide poll of 2,200 California residents (not just parents) in 1996. Our advice to our clients was not to try to decipher what people believed to be the difference between minor adjustments and complete overhaul but to understand that almost everyone believes that something should be done.

Last month, in a new national poll of 1,000 registered voters, we tried the same question with a twist. We added a fourth option that read: "Public schools have failed to meet students' needs and a new approach with home-schooling and vouchers for private and parochial schools should be given a chance."

The results: 29 percent said minor adjustments, 27 percent said total overhaul, 29 percent said schools have failed, and 9 percent said leave the schools alone.

That is nearly three people in 10 saying schools have failed, with another quarter saying the schools should be completely overhauled.

So who are these people who are ready to give up on public schools? Some might assume that the majority are taxpayers whose children are out of school or who don't have children--people without much of an apparent stake in schools. Wrong. Actually, this group of three in 10 includes slightly more parents than nonparents.

The public's evaluation of public school performance is not one-dimensional; people focus on far more than test scores or standards.

Mostly men? Wrong. Women are slightly more likely than men to say the schools have failed and that it is time for a new approach that includes home-schooling and vouchers.

Senior citizens? Wrong. Men and women under age 45 are much more likely to say schools have failed than those older than 45.

More urban than rural? Wrong. Voters in rural areas are slightly more likely to say schools have failed than their counterparts in large or medium cities, suburbs, or even small towns.

This group of three in 10 is more likely to be Republican, more likely to describe themselves as very conservative, and more likely to attend church more than once a week.

One key lesson here: The public is by no means monolithic. That may seem obvious, but we make this point because it has been our experience that education leaders often treat the public as a single entity. They produce one set of materials for "the public," and, if they subdivide the public at all, it is to treat parents differently from other members of the community.

Educators would do well to understand how various parts of their many publics feel about the schools. The purpose is not to pander to particular audiences but to understand where to start the conversations about better schools.

One of the most powerful ways for education leaders to engage their publics is by asking the question: "What would you need to see that would indicate schools are getting better?"

The answer is: Lots of things. Our polls and focus groups have told us that changes in many things--from test scores and graduation rates to the level of engagement of children and their parents to safety and smaller classes--could signal the public that schools are on the right path. The public's evaluation of public school performance is not one-dimensional; people focus on far more than test scores or standards.

In our national poll of voters last month, we asked which of four things would tell voters that schools in their area were improving. The results: 37 percent said more parents personally involved in their child's education; 23 percent said increases in quantitative measures such as test scores and graduation rates; 19 percent said higher academic-performance standards; and 9 percent said improved safety and fewer discipline problems.

In the same poll, when we suggested that major changes were possible and asked respondents to pick the one they would like to see implemented first, 25 percent picked teaching students values such as tolerance, respect, and self-discipline; 23 percent picked raising academic requirements and standards so students must prove themselves in order to graduate or advance a grade; 23 percent picked moving beyond the basics to also teach problem-solving skills and teamwork; and 22 percent picked requiring parents to take a more active role in the academic portion of their children's education.

Essentially, we found all four ideas equally popular. The lesson here is that people recognize that many improvements are needed. To be sure, these are forced choices. It obviously is possible to do these things in combination. But the results are instructive. It is also instructive to look inside these answers.

For example, when we looked at the choices made by the three in 10 who said schools have failed and who are ready to try home-schooling and vouchers, we find that they are more likely to say teach values and raise standards and slightly less likely to say require parental involvement or teach problem-solving skills. If we examine the results by educational levels, college graduates are most likely to say raise standards, while those with only a high school diploma or less are most likely to say teach values.

Listening to the many publics who care about public schools is important. But we do not believe that education leaders should simply blow with the public wind.

Instead, we think it imperative that those who care about the survival and improvement of the public schools understand what their publics believe and expect from the schools. This kind of strategic listening is a necessary first step in re-engaging the majority of Americans who are increasingly disenchanted with the public schools--and who are running out of patience.


Nancy Belden is a public opinion analyst and partner at the firm of Belden & Russonello in Washington. Vince Breglio is a public opinion analyst and head of the firm Research/Strategy/Management in Rockville, Md. Adam Kernan-Schloss and Andy Plattner are the co-founders of A-Plus Communications in Arlington, Va.

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