Split Over Schools . . .

By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 23, 2005

The good news is that the American public values education so highly that it is prepared to support almost any sensible reform that promises to improve the quality of grade schools and high schools.

The bad news is that the people teaching in those schools are deeply opposed to current reform efforts and skeptical of the basic premise that all students should be measured by the same high standards.

Those are the paradoxical lessons I draw from a briefing this week on a comprehensive survey of parents, educators and the general public sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and conducted jointly by the polling firms of Peter D. Hart, a Democrat, and David Winston, a Republican.

As for the value of education, when asked to identify from a list of five options the single greatest source of U.S. success in the world, the public education system edged out our democratic system of government for first place, with our entrepreneurial culture, military strength, and advantages of geography and natural resources far behind.

A plurality of parents gave a B grade to their own children's school and a C to the country's schools. When given a brief description of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration's school reform program, parents, by 45 percent to 34 percent, viewed it favorably. That may not seem like much of an endorsement, but it came after a year of increased controversy and criticism of the program, from some conservatives and many Democrats, and represented a slight improvement from last year.

But high school teachers were decidedly more negative, rating the legislation unfavorably by a ratio of 75 percent to 19 percent. When asked if the basic approach of that law should be extended to high school by requiring states to set standards and test students in grades nine through 12, more than four out of 10 parents said they strongly favored it, but an equal portion of high school teachers was strongly opposed.

More troubling, from the viewpoint of reformers, is the gap between teachers and the public on the question of performance standards for students. Those polled were asked to choose between the view that all students, teachers and schools should be held to the same standard of performance because it is wrong to have lower expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the contrary view that they should not be held to the same standard because we should not expect teachers working with disadvantaged students to have them reach the same level of performance on standardized tests as teachers in more affluent schools.

More than half of the parents favored the single standard, but only one-quarter of the high school teachers agreed.

These differences help explain why the two big teachers unions and the Bush administration have been at odds over the implementation of No Child Left Behind.

The implications for the effort to improve the schools are pretty negative. Realistically, change in the classroom depends first and foremost on what teachers are willing and able to do. Change can be coerced only up to a point. If what President Bush has called the "soft bigotry of low expectations" is viewed by most teachers as a realistic appraisal of some students, that negative message will pervade the schools.

Fortunately, there are other findings in the poll that offer more encouragement. Parents agreed with teachers that problems in the broader society affect the schools and cannot be solved entirely within the classroom. While current federal standards rely primarily on achievement tests in evaluating school performance, and some educators argue that it would be better to measure year-to-year progress of students, large majorities of parents and teachers said that both measures were important and should go into the evaluations.

They also agreed that the work of improving elementary schools is far from finished and that reforming those schools should have priority over moving on to the high schools. Fewer than one in five teachers or parents would switch the priority to high schools at this point.

When it comes to high schools, there is broad agreement that real-world, work-related experiences are important and that the problem of dropouts is critical. But parents are much more likely than teachers to believe that expectations and standards are set too low and that students are not sufficiently challenged. An earlier survey by Achieve Inc., a private business group, reported that only 24 percent of recent high school graduates said they faced challenging standards.

Clearly the educators and the public are on different wavelengths when it comes to conditions in our schools. That is a real barrier to progress.


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