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Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Black Parents Want Focus on Academics

Black Parents Want Focus on Academics

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African-American parents, by an overwhelming margin, want the public schools to focus on achievement rather than on racial diversity and integration, a survey released last week says.

When asked what the bigger priority for schools should be, 80 percent of black parents chose raising academic standards and achievement, according to the survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public-opinion research firm in New York City. Nine percent chose achieving diversity and integration, and 11 percent said both.

Public Agenda and the Public Education Network, a Washington-based group of nonprofit local education funds, plan to use the findings to engage Americans in conversations about race and education nationwide next year.

White parents in the survey, whom researchers found "very reluctant to talk about education in racial terms," expressed anxiety about integration. More than 60 percent of those polled said they believed discipline and safety problems, lower reading scores, and social problems would follow if large numbers of black students began attending a mostly white school.

Still, both groups of parents said that integration remained an important goal.

Eight in 10 black parents and 66 percent of white parents said it was very or somewhat important that their own child's school be racially integrated.

Nearly half of black parents said integration was very important, compared with 28 percent of whites.

"School integration serves important--mostly social--functions," the study concludes, "but academic achievement is, for both groups, a separate and independent issue."

The findings "challenge some commonly held assumptions about what African-American parents consider most important," said Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of Public Agenda.

While black parents bring different experiences to the issue of public education from those of whites, she said, "their concern about quality education and academic standards and their agenda for achieving these is nearly identical."

Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network, called the results "exciting, affirming, and hopeful."

"There is common ground about the need for high-quality public education, common ground on what education ought to look like, and common ground that standards and good teaching and community support are essential," she said.

'Lack of Passion'

The study concludes that both groups of parents show "a distinctive lack of energy and passion for integration."

Those attitudes stem from both races' doubts that integration improves learning, the report says, and from white parents' fears that they will have to "forfeit the schools for which they searched long and hard."

"Time to Move On: African-American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools" presents the results of 30-minute telephone surveys of 800 black and 800 white parents conducted March 26 to April 17, as well as the findings from eight focus groups and individual interviews with parents and 22 public educators. The margin of error for both racial groups surveyed is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The focus groups were separated by race in an attempt to make participants feel more comfortable about what they wanted to say. Public Agenda hopes to conduct similar research with other groups of minority parents, such as Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Black parents' insistence on academic achievement reflects their fears about how their children are faring in schools, the report suggests. "In their minds, the problem is at crisis point," it says.

Most black parents (56 percent) estimated that fewer than half of black students attend good schools with good teachers. By contrast, 74 percent thought that white students attended good schools.

And while 48 percent of black parents thought that more than half of black students are doing well in school, 47 percent disagreed, saying that fewer than half were achieving, the study found.

Black parents believe the problems facing black students are widespread, affecting even those outside inner cities and without regard to family income.

In fact, 60 percent said they would switch their children from public to private schools if money were not an obstacle; only 38 percent would stay with their public schools.

White parents also saw problems with the education of African-American children, but tended to believe the problems were confined to low-income families and inner-city schools.

No Test Bias Seen

The survey also examines attitudes toward the issues of affirmative action in school hiring and of alleged racial bias in standardized testing.

Asked to choose among three ways to hire a superintendent in a mostly black district, 76 percent of black parents said the choice should be the best candidate, regardless of race. Only 4 percent would have hired a black candidate even if it meant turning away a better-qualified white candidate.

Three-fourths of black parents also said that a mostly black district should hire the best teachers possible, regardless of race.

"These findings are strong and consistent but somewhat counterintuitive," the report says, noting that 68 percent of black parents thought that there was some truth to the statement that teachers and principals, because of racial stereotypes, had lower expectations for black students.

The same proportion said that too many white teachers didn't know how to deal with black students because they were from different cultures.

Even though they believe black students "sometimes pay a price when taught by whites," the study says, black parents--and whites concur--think that racial considerations divert schools from academics.

And although racial bias in standardized testing is a perennial issue, the study found that most African-American parents reject bias as a reason for black students' faring less well than whites on tests.

Only 28 percent attributed such gaps to cultural bias. Forty-four percent of black parents believed that the tests "measure real differences in educational achievement," while 18 percent cited a failure of expectations for the gap.

"A lot of parents don't lay down the law with their kids," the report quotes one black parent in Cleveland as saying. "It's the quality and effort and training, starting at home."

Indeed, 72 percent of black parents agreed that "too many black parents neglect to push their kids to work hard in school," a statement supported by 59 percent of white parents.

Neal Johnson, a senior research partner with the Educational Testing Service's Washington-based office of public leadership, said the study's findings jibe with the testing company's own research, which has found that the percentage of minority adults who believe testing is biased is dropping.

Ahead of Politicians

But he cautioned that Public Agenda polled only parents, who would tend to be younger than the African-American population at large and thus less likely to have experienced testing bias in their own school years.

"Parents are ahead of the politicians and the talk show pundits on the issue of test fairness," Mr. Johnson said. "They know what their kids are experiencing in terms of the quality of education, and these data suggest that they're proceeding with that information."

Beth Dilley, the executive director of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Education Fund, which is affiliated with the Public Education Network, said the findings "absolutely mirror what we hear here."

"Everybody wants a really good future for their kids," she said. "I think it is unfortunate that so many people make judgments about parents of color wanting less for their kids, when they're trapped in a system they can't control."

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 1,16-17

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