School & District Management

Poll: Public Lacks Time for Schools

By Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily — April 18, 2001 8 min read
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Americans rank education as their highest public-policy priority, but many say they lack the time and expertise to become directly involved in the public schools, a poll that was set for release this week shows.

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The task for educators and activists, then, is to provide the public with the information it needs to give schools meaningful support in a minimum of time, says the Washington-based Public Education Network, which sponsored the poll with Education Week.

The challenge, PEN President Wendy D. Puriefoy said, is to tap into people’s sense of duty to the schools.

“People are concerned not only about their children, but all children,” Ms. Puriefoy said, noting that the PEN-Education Week poll bears that out. Americans recognize that “education is not a privilege, it’s a right,” she added.

In the poll, “Action for All: The Public’s Responsibility for Public Education,” which was scheduled for release here April 16, education emerged as the top area of public-policy concern when 1,175 poll respondents were asked to rank it against seven other issues, including health care, taxes and spending, and crime and drugs. At the same time, though, many people said they did not see themselves becoming actively involved in school change.

For More Information

Read “Action for All: The Public’s Responsibility for Public Education” from the Public Education Network. (Free, but requires registration and Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) Or order by calling the PEN at (202) 628-7460. The first copy is free; additional copies are $5 each.

“Like people who inhale second- hand smoke, Americans are increasingly breathing ‘second-hand democracy,’” the poll’s authors contend. “Americans seem content to sit back and let the advocates, experts, and educators take over.”

One place to bridge that divide, PEN argues, is the voting booth. The key, says a report accompanying the poll results, is making sure Americans have the information they need to decide on candidates and issues intelligently.

“If Americans were to do one thing that could make schools better, it would simply be to become ‘education voters,’ who know the issues, know the candidates’ positions, and use the power of the voting booth to improve schools,” the report says.

Toward that end, PEN will soon embark on a multiyear campaign focused on public responsibility for the public schools and a plan to build a nationwide support base for public schools of 1 million people. PEN and Education Week also plan to sponsor annual surveys related to the public-involvement theme over the next four years.

Beyond Volunteerism

When asked to identify the most important public-policy issues, 37 percent of the poll respondents selected education; Social Security and Medicare placed second, with 30 percent. Among parents of children under 18, 49 percent chose education. Ninety-six percent of all the respondents also said that all communities should have high-quality public schools, and 91 percent said every American child should be guaranteed a high-quality public education.

The findings point up an “evolution” in thinking, Ms. Puriefoy said, from a time when citizens focused narrowly on the success of their own children to a general sense today that all children deserve a first-rate education. It also underscores people’s willingness to fulfill what they perceive as their civic duties, she said.

In response to a question about the public’s greatest responsibility for supporting the schools, a total of 61 percent of respondents chose raising one’s own children responsibly, paying taxes, and becoming as informed as possible about education issues. Only 8 percent said they saw volunteering in schools as a citizen’s primary responsibility to the schools.

Fifty-seven percent said they were extremely or very interested in information about local school board candidates, and 54 percent said they were interested in comparisons of their local schools’ performance with that of others in their state.

The respondents’ focus on traditional civic duties, such as voting and paying taxes, “places public education right dead-center at the heart of what it means to be an American,” Ms. Puriefoy said. “The public recognizes that volunteerism is not sufficient to make the kind of changes and support that is needed for all of our children” to succeed, she added.

Time Crunch

The poll was conducted by the Washington-based firm Lake Snell Perry & Associates and is based on telephone interviews in January of 1,175 registered voters. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points. Respondents were asked about the issues in education that concerned them most, their communities’ commitment to schools, and their personal willingness to take part in school projects. The pollsters also conducted focus groups in Baltimore last November. Despite their interest in public education, some two-thirds of the respondents said that work and family obligations and other factors left them with no more than three hours a week to devote to schools.

Of those respondents, 17 percent said they had no time at all to get involved with the public schools; 20 percent said they had less than one hour a week, and 31 percent said they had one to three hours a week.

When asked what was most likely to prompt them to act, the largest block of respondents—55 percent—said they would be likely to get involved only in the case of a “serious crisis,” such as a school shooting or a threatened state takeover of a school.

“A lot of people are working later into the evenings, so some parents may not have the opportunity to put in two or three hours a night or to join the PTA,” one focus-group participant said. “That’s why it is important that other people in the community take a role.”

The actions that people said they were most likely to take to improve schools included voting against elected officials who did not support the schools, signing petitions, attending town meetings, and talking with their neighbors about school issues.

Overall, the greatest number of respondents cited teacher quality as their highest priority for improving schools. Thirty percent of all those polled chose teacher quality. But minority respondents split between teacher quality and equalizing school funding as their top priority.

‘Collective Responsibility’

Ronald A. Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week and the chairman of the board of the newspaper’s nonprofit publisher, Editorial Projects in Education, said he found reason for optimism in the findings.

“In general, I think the broad message that I get from this poll ... [is] the American public is firmly committed and supportive of public education,” said Mr. Wolk, who is a member of PEN’s board of directors and the chairman of the network’s committee on public engagement. The nonprofit network, based in Washington, provides support for local education funds working with public schools in communities across the nation.

But Mr. Wolk acknowledged that there was something of a gap between the respondents’ support for schools and their willingness to get personally involved. Still, he said, the general public should not be expected to devote every waking hour to school improvement.

“People should not have to run their schools,” he said. “That’s why we hire superintendents and principals.”

Michael K. Grady, a deputy director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University, said he also found the results encouraging.

“You’re beginning to see a heightened sense of collective responsibility” for schools, Mr. Grady said.

He pointed to the findings that those polled were concerned about children in general, not just their own. And, he added, it was good news that respondents generally—not just those with children—said they would vote for school bonds and other proposals of interest to schools.

“Overall, I think it indicates greater awareness, a broader sense of support” for public schools, Mr. Grady said.

Terry Ehrich, the founder and president of the Bennington, Vt.-based First Day Foundation, said the sense that people see their role in schools as limited to traditional acts such as voting does not surprise him.

“What we have found is that people often don’t know how to be [involved], often are intimidated, often don’t feel welcome [in schools], and often don’t feel qualified” to dive into education projects, he said.

Mr. Ehrich and his organization have tried to counter that by encouraging schools to start their academic years with “first-day holidays,” celebratory events that open schools to parents on the first day of the school year. (“First Things First,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

Developing a Culture

In Medina, Ohio, Superintendent Charles M. Irish said he considers efforts to bring the public into the policy-setting fold part of a long-term strategy, rather than a quick fix.

The 6,700-student Medina district publishes a monthly update in the community newspaper, and Medina officials have gained a reputation for going to great lengths to include members of the public in decisionmaking.

“The community has to develop a culture ... where it expects to be involved in important issues. It isn’t something that’s done easily or quickly at all,” Mr. Irish argued.

But for Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, the poll underscored some worrisome trends. “Remote-control activities like voting, like reading information, only take you so far,” Mr. Cross said. At some point, he added, schools need people to volunteer for committees writing academic standards and other substantive activities.

“That’s a major question of how do you motivate people to do that, and how do you get people involved,” added Mr. Cross, whose Washington- based organization promotes a strong academic curriculum for all students.

On the other hand, the poll’s findings on the public’s desire for information about schools are important, he said.

“Information is power,” Mr. Cross said, “and when you put that information in the hands of people, ... I think they’ll make smart decisions if you give them good information.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Poll: Public Lacks Time for Schools


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