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    What America Thinks
    Parents May Be Part of the Problem

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, March 29, 1999

    What's wrong with public schools? Some say it's slacker kids who don't want to learn. Others say it's teachers who can't teach and school administrators who can't administer. Now, a new national study suggests that a large part of the problem is parents who "are just not living up to their end of the deal," according to the Public Agenda.

    The survey of teachers and parents suggests "a veneer of cordiality" overlays a surprisingly troubled and antagonistic relationship. Nine out of 10 teachers say parents complement them regularly or occasionally. Eight in 10 say they get parental support when forced to discipline a child.

    "For their part, parents too are pleased with the interaction they have with their children's teachers, and most report that teachers are normally friendly, concerned, and accessible," reports Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization that tracks opinion on major policy issues.

    Other results suggest a more complex and unsettled relationship. Two in three teachers gave their school's parents a "fair" or "poor" rating "on involvement with their children's education." Just one in four — 27 percent — said parental involvement at their school is high, "while 35 percent say it is average and 38 percent said it is low."

    A total of 1,220 parents of children in public schools were interviewed by telephone in December. A mail survey of 1,000 public school teachers also was conducted by Public Agenda. The survey was supplemented by directed conversations with groups of parents and teachers.

    Seven in 10 parents acknowledge that parents need to get more involved in their children's education. "Fully 82 percent agree that 'too many parents expect the school to do their job for them,' with 54 percent strongly agreeing." But what education visionaries and parents mean when they talk about parental involvement are very different things, the survey revealed. "Education reformers and elected officials often assume that greater parental control of local schools — empowering parents — is a desirable goal, at the very least something parents want," analysts wrote.

    In fact, few parents want to share power and responsibility for running their children's schools. Just one in four — 25 percent — said they would be "very comfortable helping to plan school curriculum and 36 percent said they would be similarly comfortable "helping decide how to spend your school's money."

    "I'm involved in my daughter's classroom, but choosing the topics, that's not my area," said a New Mexico mother. "I don't really know the requirements, how the system works. That should be up to the school. As long as my daughter is learning more and more every day, then I feel they're doing something right."

    Likewise, parents are uncomfortable evaluating teacher performance. Slightly more than a third — 37 percent — said they would feel "very comfortable" helping to "evaluate the quality of your school's teachers. And 27 percent were similarly at ease "serving on a committee to decide which new teachers or principal to hire."

    "I used to be in the Air Force, and we had very different criteria for evaluating different jobs," said one Florida father. "So I don't think I'm in a position to judge the teachers. Plus, I don't think the teachers would appreciate it. Any time people are looking at your job, you will look at them a little suspiciously."

    Another reason parents are reluctant to set curriculum and evaluate teachers: Parents admit they don't know a lot about their child's teacher or school, according to an earlier Public Agenda survey. That poll, conducted for Education Week magazine, found that only one in four parents say they know "a lot" about the qualifications of their child's teacher, and 39 percent said they know a lot about how their child's school ranks against other schools in the area.

    That doesn't mean parents have abandoned the schools. Half of those interviewed said they would be "very comfortable" volunteering to help supervise and guide children in after-school activities. And big majorities would do traditional parent tasks — such as career day or a book sale or serving as a chaperone.

    Parents may be reluctant to take on a leadership role in schools, but teachers are even more reluctant to give it to them. "Given a list of 11 ways parents can get involved at schools — ranging from classroom tutoring to curriculum design — and asked to choose the four most important, virtually no teacher choose meatier areas of responsibility" for parents, the report said.

    Only 2 percent say helping to design curriculum is important, and a similar percentage want parents to help hire administrators. "Only 8 percent say it is critical to have parents who know the difference between good and bad teaching methods," the study found. But proposing changes to the school lunch menu is just fine with 85 percent of the teachers surveyed.

    Said one Iowa teacher, "Just because you have enough skills in the business world doesn't mean you know what it takes to deal with kids."

    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 morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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