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Most Americans want public education to work, but their support for schools is fragile and "disintegrates at the slightest probing,'' according to a report issued this fall by the group Public Agenda.

"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 two years ago by the New York City-based Public Agenda. That study--which found that the public values safety, order, and basic skills most of all and is mistrustful of many educational innovations--generated a wave of interest among educators.

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

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 417 education administrators, as well as focus groups conducted across the country.

Of those responding, 55 percent of the general public and 71 percent of parents with children in public schools initially gave schools in their communities a rating of "good'' or "excellent.'' But when researchers probed deeper, with questions about discipline, academic standards, and whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth, satisfaction plummeted. 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 teaching such subjects as European and Asian history and classic literature.
  • Eleven percent of teachers picked academics as the most important factor in career success, while 50 percent cited inner drive and 33 percent cited knowing how to get along with others.

The public's general belief in the superiority of private schools, the study found, arises from people's perception that those schools teach the academic basics and maintain order and discipline. But this admiration of private education, the report says, coexists in the minds of Americans "alongside a public desire to save America's public schools.''

When asked how that goal could be achieved, respondents offered a variety of solutions. Nearly half would rather fix the existing public system than move to vouchers or private management. In general, the report concludes, the public's attitudes about these policy options is changeable and inconsistent.

But when it comes to teaching educational basics--defined as the ability to read, write, and spell the English language and to do basic arithmetic--the public's support is nearly universal. That, however, does not mean people want education to stop at the basics. "While some reformers fear that the public means 'basics only,' '' the report says, "what the public really wants is 'basics first.' ''

The public also supports a broader social agenda for schools, including teaching good work habits and values such as honesty and tolerance. But because teaching academics is the sole province of the schools, 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.''

The study revealed that Americans strongly and consistently support higher standards, 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 testing, withholding diplomas, toughening grading, or establishing clear guidelines for what young people should learn.

Few people, it turns out, believe children face too much pressure at school. 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.

Copies of Assignment Incomplete are available for $10 each, plus shipping and handling, from Public Agenda, 6 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016; (212) 686-6610. Bulk discounts are available.

--Ann Bradley

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