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    What America Thinks
    Some Public Schools Don't Make the Grade

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, January 18, 1999

    What grade do America's public schools deserve? Depends on who's doing the grading. Public school teachers and parents give high marks to the schools – but college professors and employers say the schools fail to give their graduates the skills they need to suceed in college or the workplace.

    More than nine out of 10 public school teachers and two out of three parents say the schools in their areas are doing an "excellent" or "good" job educating children, according to a series of surveys released this month by the Public Agenda foundation and Education Week magazine.

    But the people who deal directly and most immediately with the products of the public school systems disagree – strongly. Only a third of all employers and slightly more college professors say that today's public high school students have the skills necessary to succeed in the working world or in college, the polls found.

    Employers are particularly critical. Levels of dissatisfaction on some key measures of performance declined dramatically from results of a similar poll conducted just one year ago.

    Three out of four employers – 77 percent – say recent job applicants rate only fair or poor in terms of "their work habits, such as being organized and on time," up from 58 percent in early 1998. A majority of those employers interviewed – 54 percent – grade recent applicants low in terms of "being respectful and polite"; just 32 percent offered a similarly negative assessment one year ago.

    Perhaps it's unfair to hold schools accountable for students with dismal social skills or bad manners. But it's quite fair to ask about the 3 R's – and again, public school students were graded low by employers. Big majorities say young applicants are inadequate in terms of basic math skills (64 percent) and their grammar and spelling (80 percent), both up, but only insignificantly, from last year's poll.

    The surveys of teachers, students, parents and educators raises new questions about whether efforts to reform schools will be generally accepted. Sharp disagreements emerge over what strategies will work to improve public schools.

    A majority of employers and half of all parents say teachers should be rewarded – or punished – financially for their students' academic performance. "In this survey, 60 percent of employers and 53 percent of parents favor tying financial incentives for teachers and principals to student improvement," Public Agenda analysts report in an analysis released with the survey results.

    But only 22 percent of teachers say this is a "good" idea. "The wide gap between the attitudes of teachers and other stakeholders suggests just how far reformers and educators have to go before finding common ground," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, a nonprofit public opinion research and education organization founded by pollster and social scientist Daniel Yankelovich and former secretary of state Cyrus Vance.

    Many teachers openly question reform and report the persistence of practices such as "social promotions" that are sharply criticized by educators. "Reformers' efforts to raise expectations seem to be having a hard time making it through the classroom door," Wadsworth says. Nearly all of the teachers interviewed – 97 percent – report that their districts or state have guidelines about what children should learn, but there's considerable doubt whether guidelines alone are having an impact, Wadsworth says.

    "Only 49 percent of teachers say they expect more from students because of the guidelines. Almost two out of every five teachers (39 percent) say that schools automatically promote students when reaching a maximum age. On the other hand, more teachers (68 percent) are reporting that enrollment in Advanced Placement or honors classes is on the rise compared to last year (50 percent)," analysts report.

    Some of the solutions to what ails schools won't come from better teachers or better teaching. Some reforms outside the classroom could have a considerable impact on what students learn in class. More than eight in 10 high school students interviewed said they would be more likely to work hard if they were certain that potential employers would review their grades. "The overwhelming majority of employers say they do not look at transcripts, which may stem from their general distrust of grades," Wadsworth says. "The result is that students lack the motivation that scrutiny of their grades could provide."

    Involved parents make for good schools, study after study has found. But the survey suggests that many parents know little about their children's schools. "Only a quarter of those with children in high school know the local school's dropout rate and 31 percent know the number of graduates who go on to college. Many parents have a good idea how their children measure up to their classmates (52 percent), but most also have no sense of how their kids stack up to peers across the country," the analysts report.

    Results of the latest Public Agenda survey were based on interviews with more than 2,600 public school teachers, parents of public school students, children in public middle or high schools, college professors who taught freshmen or sophomores in the last two years and employers who hire for entry-level positions. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 6 percentage points for employers and college professors and 4 percent for other subgroups. Details may be obtained from the Public Agenda website ( or from the Education Week website (

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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