School & District Management

District Leaders Said Not to Share Urgency for Education Reform

By Jeff Archer — September 28, 2006 4 min read
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Concerns about high school improvement, teacher quality, and mathematics and science instruction may be grabbing headlines of late, but they’re not keeping most of the nation’s superintendents up at night, a new survey suggests.

The nationally representative poll, released Sept. 27 by Public Agenda, shows a majority of district leaders don’t share many of the worries about public education expressed recently by foundation officials, politicians, and business leaders.

The report, “Reality Check 2006,” is available from Public Agenda.

Leaders of high-poverty districts were less sanguine than their peers in more affluent systems, but the study’s authors were struck by how much the views of local education leaders differed from those of many national groups advocating changes in education.

“There seems to be a lot of cross-talk in the situation,” said Jean Johnson, the executive vice president of Public Agenda. “You can’t help but think these kinds of disagreements are holding up progress.”

The nonprofit opinion-research group, with headquarters in New York City, based its findings on telephone surveys of 254 superintendents carried out last fall and winter. The study also polled nationally representative samples of principals, teachers, and parents.

A Bright Forecast

In general, the poll found district and school leaders pleased with their own efforts. More than three-quarters of each said low expectations for students were either not a problem at all or not too much of a problem in their schools.

Measuring Up?

Superintendents were more likely than principals or high school teachers to say that students in middle and high school had learned the academic basics.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Measuring Up?

SOURCE: Public Agenda

Likewise, 59 percent of superintendents and 66 percent of principals said their schools had little or no problem teaching students math and science. More than nine in 10 in both groups were very or somewhat satisfied with their teachers.

The positive message contrasts with the concerns driving some recent policy pushes. Over the past year, for example, business groups and the Bush administration, citing tougher global economic competition, have stepped up calls for improving instruction in math and science.

Philanthropic groups are calling attention to what they say is an unacceptably high number of dropouts from high school. And some groups have in recent months argued that states aren’t adequately addressing the teacher-quality provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The teachers polled by Public Agenda were less optimistic than the district chiefs, however. More than six in 10 teachers, compared with 27 percent of superintendents, said too many students go through their schools “without learning.”

Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy at the Washington-based Business Roundtable, said she wasn’t surprised that district leaders see their organizations in a better light than employees or observers do.

Still, she said, local education leaders must come to better grips with the need to change.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of explaining the implications of globalization, what it means to communities, what it means to schools,” she said.

Who Knows Best?

The poll, the latest in Public Agenda’s “Reality Check” series, isn’t the first by the group to hint at a disconnect between national calls for improvement and local opinion. Last February, it reported that few parents were concerned about math and science instruction.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said the response to the apparent disconnect shouldn’t be to convince the doubters that crises exist, but to listen to what those being polled are saying.

“I think superintendents have a pretty good fix on where the problems are,” said Mr. Houston, whose group represents district leaders. “And I think our answers ought to be more targeted, instead of saying, ‘Woe is me, the sky is falling, let’s do something about the entire country.’ ”

The new survey does suggest where those trouble spots may be. For example, while 63 percent of superintendents in high-income districts were “very satisfied” with their teaching staffs, just 31 percent of those in low-income systems said the same.

Asked what they saw as either very effective or somewhat effective ways to improve teaching, superintendents overall favored professional development (93 percent) and increasing teacher pay (85 percent) over pay-for-performance policies (57 percent).

Three-quarters of district leaders said it would help if they could dismiss low-performing teachers more easily, but the teachers polled were more critical of principals for tolerating bad teachers than were superintendents.

Business owner Ron Bullock thinks many district leaders have too rosy an outlook. As the chief executive officer of Bison Gear & Engineering, a 200-person company in St. Charles, Ill., that makes electric motors, he said he sees firsthand how students fail to learn needed skills.

About 60 percent of high school graduates who apply to his company are unable to pass a basic math assessment, said Mr. Bullock, who serves on a National Science Foundation panel formed this past summer to advise on improvement in math and science education.

“[Superintendents] may feel that they’re instructing OK,” he said. “But my question is: What are the kids learning?”

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