In Survey of 622 Superintendents, U.S. Schools Earn a B

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Giving the public schools a B for overall quality, the country's top district administrators are banking on class-size reduction and educational technology to push their schools to the head of the class, an opinion poll shows.

But the extensive survey of 622 superintendents and their views on issues from uniforms to national testing also reveals skepticism about many of the other reform initiatives now being promoted. The Gordon S. Black Corp., a market research company, planned to release the results of the survey this week.

"I don't think this is a voice that is heard as much as it should be," said the firm's John Geraci, who oversaw the study, "The Survey of American School Leadership."

"But these people are in as good a position as anyone to evaluate these things," he said. "They're the ones on the front lines."

In general, the survey shows, the view of public education from the superintendent's office is a favorable one. When asked to give a grade to both the nation's schools and those in their own district, in both cases more superintendents chose a B than any other grade.

Respondents were more likely, though, to hand out A's to their own schools than to the education system as a whole, a pattern other pollsters have seen in surveys of the general public. "Everyone thinks their local schools are better than the nation," Mr. Geraci said.

Tools Needed, Not Tests

The superintendents also believe American schools are doing better than is suggested by recent international comparisons, such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which showed the performance of high school seniors in the United States ranking near the bottom among 21 participating countries.

Nearly 80 percent of the superintendents polled agreed that such comparisons do not present a fair picture.

When it comes to improving the schools, most district chiefs found much to like in President Clinton's education agenda. More than 70 percent said they "strongly supported" the White House proposals to help subsidize the costs of building and modernizing schools and of reducing student-teacher ratios in the early grades by hiring more teachers.

Nearly 90 percent agreed that reducing class sizes would boost achievement. A little more than half said they've had difficulty recruiting qualified teachers. And among urban superintendents, almost two-thirds said it was a challenge to fill teaching positions.

Mr. Clinton's call for voluntary new national tests in reading and mathematics drew less overwhelming support, however. Just under two-thirds liked the idea of such tests. The superintendents were split, 52 percent to 48 percent, over whether the country should also adopt national performance standards to rate schools' achievement on such exams.

"I think a lot of people in education have had enough of imposing the rules or setting the expectations and then withholding the resources needed for meeting those expectations," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. "I think what we have here are people saying, 'Let's give them the tools to get the job done.' "

Training Sought

One of the tools the superintendents have great faith in is technology. Nearly 84 percent said they believed their schools' investments in educational technology would pay off in achievement gains.

But only about half thought their teachers had enough training to properly integrate the technology into their instruction. The concern was even greater among urban chiefs, just 40 percent of whom said their teachers had enough professional development in technology.

The superintendents were less enthusiastic about plans for increasing teacher accountability. Fewer than 9 percent thought it would be an "excellent" idea to give teachers competency tests every five years. They were similarly unimpressed by proposals to link teacher tenure and salaries more closely to student performance.

A section of the survey on safety portrays the administrators as cautious, but not fearful, following the series of school shootings that made national news last school year.

About 72 percent said the incidents had forced their districts to reconsider their safety policies. A quarter of suburban superintendents said they "worry a lot" that such violence could take place in their schools, as did nearly a third of urban superintendents.

But 65 percent believed their schools are as safe as they have been in the past, and 28 percent said they are safer.

"Each incident is a great tragedy," Mr. Marx said. "But still, in comparison to the number of schools there are, they are very few, and schools remain one of the safest havens in society."

The survey involved telephone interviews last month with superintendents from districts of various sizes in urban, suburban, and rural areas. It has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points. The poll also included proprietary questions posed by private organizations that commissioned the Rochester, N.Y.-based company to carry out their research.

Results from the nonproprietary questions are available free by calling (800) 866-7655.

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Page 11

Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as In Survey of 622 Superintendents, U.S. Schools Earn a B
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