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    What America Thinks
    The Three R's Still Stand

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Aug. 10, 1998

    Overwhelming majorities of African American and white parents agree: Schools should focus on reading, writing and arithmetic over promoting integration and diversity, according to a new national survey of parents.

    But having integrated schools continues to be an important goal for both blacks and whites, according to the poll, which was conducted by the Public Agenda research organization in collaboration with the Public Education Network.

    Virtually all of the parents agreed that, "our country is very diverse and kids need to learn to get along with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds." And eight in 10 black and white parents believe that integrated schools are a "desirable goal," the survey found.

    But the survey and subsequent focus group discussions revealed that many white parents remain anxious about integration. "They fear that black children who may be trouble for socioeconomic reasons will be placed in the children's schools," according to a summary of the survey findings prepared by Public Agenda researchers.

    "I have lots of black students ... in my kid's school," said one white parent who participated in a focus group in Walnut Creek, Calif. "They redrew the lines and brought in a large section of low-income housing kids into my children's elementary school. Test scores dropped. These are kids that need help and they get it. But it dumbs down the curriculum, and it takes away from the gifted kids."

    In the survey, six in 10 white parents said they chose their neighborhood largely based on the quality of the area schools, and most also expressed concern that "discipline and safety issues, lower reading levels or social problems may occur if a large number of black students were to come into a mostly white school," the researchers reported. (Still, seven in 10 white parents also said a school could do something to prevent such problems.)

    But the big surprise in this survey of 800 black parents and 800 white parents came in the attitudes of black parents, which on issue after issue flatly contradicted conventional wisdom.

    "Most African American parents do not think standardized tests are culturally biased, and very few want race to be a factor in choosing the best teachers for their children," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. "And while they bring to the issue of public education experiences that differ from those of white parents, their concern about quality education and academic standards and their agenda for achieving these is nearly identical."

    According to the survey, 44 percent of the African American parents said standardized tests measured "real differences in educational achievement," while 18 percent said whites tend to do better because blacks have low expectations of themselves. Another 28 percent think "the tests are culturally biased against black students." Nearly eight in 10 parents, both white and black, want racial differences in test results publicized "since this may help to set reforms in motion to solve the problem," researchers wrote.

    Three out of four black parents told poll-takers that race should not be a factor when choosing a teacher or superintendent for a predominantly black school district. "I want them not to be prejudiced," said a black parent who participated in a focus group in Cleveland. "As long as he's doing his job, I don't care if he's green."

    Still, a majority of black parents expressed concern that white teachers would not be able to understand or deal with the problems faced by African American students and parents.

    While valuing integration and diversity, eight in 10 black parents said these goals should be secondary to raising academic standards and achievement. And even when these parents were asked about their own children's schools, eight in 10 said they wanted the schools to make improving education the top priority.

    "We've spent a lot of time on the race issues, and we need to redirect some of those energies to getting our children better educated," said a black parent in Pennsylvania.

    Many blacks also said they were weary of those who automatically attributed all black disadvantage to white racism — just as they were angered by those who believed racism was no longer a serious problem in American life.

    Three in four said blacks are "sometimes too quick to believe negative things happen to them because of their race." And perhaps more significantly, two in three black parents agreed that "too much is made of the differences between blacks and whites and not enough of what they have in common."

    Racism is real, blacks and many whites agreed. But the researchers said the prevailing sentiment of black parents surveyed was that "the future is in our hands" — and education is the key.

    "What are you gonna do?" said one black mother in Oakland. "How long are we going to say, the white man treated me so bad? I tell my children this; that's the education part for me. We know what the situation has been; we know what it is. So now, 'What are you going to do about it?'"

    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 1998 The Washington Post Company

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