Views From The Classroom
The nation's public school teachers agree with the general public about the importance of teaching basic academic skills, but they disagree over how good a job schools are currently doing, according to a study released in February by the research group Public Agenda.
The study also found that teachers share the public's support for higher academic standards but do not rank such standards among their highest priorities. Teachers, for example, believe that students should not receive high school diplomas unless they demonstrate a clear command of English. But while 76 percent of the public gave this view the highest possible approval rating, only 54 percent of teachers did so.
"What do you mean by higher national standards?'' asked one Seattle teacher who was surveyed. "What about Head Start so that all children start school with a full stomach? What about giving them homes that are drug-free? Are those part of your national standards?''
The report, "Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today,'' is the third major study in two years from Public Agenda, a nonprofit public-opinion research group based in New York City. It is the first to focus on teachers, measuring their views on a host of issues related to education and schools. The two earlier reports, "First Things First'' in 1994 and "Assignment Incomplete'' in 1995, highlighted the public's demand for order and discipline in the schools and warned that Americans' support for public schools is tenuous. Those studies have drawn widespread attention in education-policy circles.
"We believed that we had not seen anything that probed very deeply and gave teachers a chance to express their concerns, and so we set out to do that,'' said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's executive director.
What Public Agenda found was that teachers and the public have similar concerns but different starting points. The top three problems for teachers, for example, are money, class size, and order, while the most serious concerns for the public are safety, order, and teaching the basics. "One of the positive things I conclude from this study,'' Wadsworth said, "is there is a basis to re-establish the compact that used to exist between teachers and parents and other members of the public.''
The new study is based primarily on results of two national telephone surveys of public school teachers conducted by Public Agenda last year. One, conducted in May, measured views of 237 teachers. A second, during October and November, surveyed 800 teachers in grades 4 through 12, as well as "oversamples'' of 364 black and Hispanic teachers. (Data from the general public were drawn from the two earlier Public Agenda surveys.)
The study showed that teachers share the public's belief in the importance of teaching "the basics.'' A solid 98 percent of teachers and 92 percent of the public said it was essential for local schools to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills. But when rating how well the public schools are performing, the opinions of teachers and the public diverge. Eighty-six percent of teachers said public schools in their own communities did a good or excellent job, while only 55 percent of the public agreed. And 76 percent of teachers thought their local public schools outperformed private schools, compared with 33 percent of the public.
The release of the report prompted a quick reaction from teachers' union officials and education policymakers. They were particularly concerned about the finding that teachers place a lower priority than the public on the need to set high academic standards. "Classroom teachers are trying to juggle the reality of kids that come into the classroom every day and what it is they need to do to raise the standards,'' said Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, which helped pay for the study. "A classroom teacher dealing with 35 students is probably going to look at what he or she can do with those kids a lot differently than someone sitting outside of the school.''
Geiger, nevertheless, said it was incumbent on NEA leaders to make sure the group's 2.2 million members "grasp the seriousness'' of the report. "If, for whatever reason, teachers are not as confident that we can raise standards as the public is, we have got to have a dialogue,'' he said. Teachers must be convinced that high standards are a high priority, and the public, Geiger added, must be made aware "that there are more problems in the classroom than reading, writing, and arithmetic.''
The 885,000-member American Federation of Teachers also helped pay for the report. Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to AFT President Albert Shanker, said the big news was that teachers and the public generally agree on basic education issues. Teachers' responses to the questions about standards, she said, showed that they had a "different emphasis'' as a result of being in the classroom.
But Christopher Cross, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Basic Education, which promotes a challenging liberal-arts education in schools, said several of the standards questions sounded as if they were phrased so teachers would react defensively to them. The more general questions, he said, showed that teachers were not all that far apart from the public.
For example, teachers did not respond as strongly as the public to the assertion that "academic standards are too low and kids are not expected to learn enough,'' Cross noted. But teachers and the public both strongly supported "setting up very clear guidelines on what kids should learn and teachers should teach . . . so the kids and the teachers will know what to aim for.''
Cross, who is also president of the Maryland board of education, said he has found that the more teachers understand about the standards movement, the more they support it. His interpretation of the study, he said, "is [that] you have to do a much clearer job of defining what standards are and making teachers part of the process.''
To order a copy of "Given the Circumstances,'' send $10, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling, to Public Agenda, 6 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016; or call (212) 686-6610.