School ‘Experts’ Found Out of Sync With Public

By Mark Walsh — October 12, 1994 5 min read

Education-reform ideas favored by government and business leaders are badly out of sync with the general public’s top concerns--safe and orderly schools and a return to the basics, a survey by the Public Agenda Foundation suggests.

A majority of respondents in the survey released last week by the New York City-based research organization support calls for higher standards in the nation’s public schools.

But many reject the methods proposed to reach them, such as new forms of assessment, cooperative learning, and relying on calculators in mathematics. Those methods were often characterized as untried teaching fads that replace “time-honored ways of doing things.”

“To many Americans, ‘education experts’ seem to be giving surprisingly short shrift to basics,” focusing instead on critical-thinking skills and higher-order learning, the study concludes.

The 54-page report, “First Things First: What Americans Expect From the Public Schools,” is based on a survey of more than 1,100 Americans. About half the respondents were parents of children in public schools.

The foundation also conducted focus-group interviews in four cities.

The organization has taken a special interest in research on public attitudes about education reform. (See Education Week, April 7, 1993.)

In the new survey, members of the public ranked the threat of drugs and violence as the most serious problem facing their communities’ schools, followed by academic standards that are too low and a lack of emphasis on basic subjects.

“I think that what we have picked up is this enormous disconnect between the leadership and the public,” Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of Public Agenda, said in an interview.

The report says political and business leaders have reached a consensus with education experts that the schools need higher academic standards, increased coursework in science and mathematics, and more challenging assessments that require students to show their command of a subject.

“But the public feels that none of its top concerns are being addressed by leadership,” Ms. Wadsworth added. “As they look around their lives day to day, they are confronted with teenagers who can’t make change.”

Experts’ ‘Pet Theories’

Michael G. Jackson, an executive working with the education task force of the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate leaders that has backed many of the methods described in the survey, said reform advocates must pay more attention to the public’s priorities.

“It’s just critical that we recognize that the public has certain prerequisites,” he said. “These survey findings reinforce that this is going to take a long time.”

The study found that, when explained in broad terms, the public actually supports reform ideas such as outcomes-based education.

More than eight out of 10 said that “setting up very clear guidelines on what kids should learn and teachers should teach” would significantly boost academic achievement. Even nine out of 10 parents identified as “traditional Christian” supported that concept, in contrast to the anti-O.B.E. stance of groups such as the Christian Coalition.

The survey included a special focus on African-American parents and traditional Christian parents, whom it identified as those who said they attended religious services weekly and took the Bible as the literal truth or considered themselves “born again.”

But focus groups disdained the idea of outcomes-based education. One Minneapolis father said O.B.E. represented “trying out someone’s pet theory.”

“They have these real vague, self-esteem-oriented goals, and even the teacher can’t tell you what the heck it is that they’re supposed to be evaluating,” the father adds in the report.

A majority of respondents were skeptical of new teaching techniques such as using calculators in mathematics instead of memorizing multiplication tables, teaching writing with less emphasis on correct spelling, and mixing students of different achievement levels in the same class.

For example, 86 percent of respondents said students should learn to do arithmetic by hand before using calculators.

“Over all, the public seems to have a more traditional view of what should be happening in the classroom,” the report concludes. “People don’t understand why these reforms are considered better, and people haven’t really been all that impressed with the teaching reforms they have seen in the past.”

Christian Viewpoint

The survey found that traditional Christians agreed with the general public on the vast majority of questions about new teaching initiatives. However, not surprisingly, they were more likely to object to sex education that accepts premarital sex or homosexuality.

For example, 60 percent of traditional Christian respondents said it would be inappropriate in any grade to provide students the phone numbers of gay-support groups, compared with 46 percent of the general public.

However, 61 percent of traditional Christian parents said schools should teach students to have respect for homosexuals, about the same response as the general public.

Christian respondents were more likely to object to assigning J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in high school, with 55 percent opposed, compared with 33 percent of the general public.

African-American parents tended to be more troubled about the state of their local public schools than were white parents. Eighty percent said drugs and violence were a serious problem, compared with 58 percent of white parents.

On sex education, there was more support among black parents than white parents for more explicit information in earlier grades. Almost half of the black parents said they wanted AIDS education to begin in the early elementary grades, compared with about one-third of white parents.

Building Trust Locally

The survey found that members of the public place the most trust in local parents and teachers to make decisions about the schools. Elected officials in Washington are at the bottom of the list, just below governors, local elected officials, and teachers’ union representatives.

Ms. Wadsworth said building the public’s confidence in school-reform initiatives must start with local parents and teachers.

“There has been a lot of lip service paid to communicating with the public,” she said. “But people have real concerns, and until the leadership pays attention to them, they are not going to go away.”

Copies of the report are available for $10 each from the Public Agenda Foundation, 6 East 39th St., New York, N.Y. 10016-0112; (212) 686-6610.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1994 edition of Education Week as School ‘Experts’ Found Out of Sync With Public