Could an Adult Learn in a Place like This? Black and Hispanic Students More Likely to Report Poor Climate for Learning

Nearly One-Third of Black Students Report Serious Disruptions and Distractions


New York City -- If an adult were forced to work in an environment where disrespect, bad language, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse and other bad behaviors are inflicted by a relative few, but tolerated or winked at by management, it might be considered a hostile workplace, a report released today by the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda points out.

Substantial numbers of the nation's black and Hispanic students report conditions like these in their schools, according to a Public Agenda national survey of parents, middle and high school students and teachers. Asked to rate their schools on key academic and social dimensions - resources, promotion policies, dropout rates, truancy, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse and others -- black and Hispanic students are more likely than their white counterparts to report very serious problems in nearly every category.

In Reality Check 2006: How Black and Hispanic Families Rate Their Schools (the second report issued this year in the Reality Check 2006 series), Public Agenda found that American students have much in common regardless of racial or ethnic background. Majorities of all students back higher standards, say their teachers do a good job in most respects, and express some level of concern about lack of respect, profanity, and drugs and alcohol abuse in their schools. But for minority kids, academic problems like high dropout rates and kids getting passed through the system without learning, and social issues like profanity, disrespect for teachers and drug and alcohol abuse are far more prevalent and serious in their schools. According to the report, about 3 in 10 black youngsters attend schools with considerable turmoil:

  • 30% of black students report that teachers spend more time trying to keep order than teaching
  • 30% say their school has very serious problems with drug and alcohol abuse
  • 32% report very serious problems with fighting and weapons
  • 33% say their school is not consistent in enforcing discipline and behavior rules
  • 37% say their school has a very serious problem with kids cutting class
  • 52% say their school has a very serious problem with kids who lack respect for teachers and use bad language

Nearly half of Hispanic students (48%) report that their school has a very serious problem with kids dropping out.

Jean Johnson, Executive Director of Public Agenda's new initiative Education Insights and an author of the report said, This is not grumbling from a group of easily-shocked adults who haven't been inside a school in years and still havent come to grips with todays teen fashions. These are the judgments of young people themselves who say problems like truancy and disrespect for teachers are very serous in their schools -- not just 'somewhat serious,' but 'very serious.' A lot of these kids are highly aware that their schools are not serving them well, and that has to be discouraging.

Minority parents are also more likely to report serious academic and social problems in their schools. Half of black (49%) and Hispanic (52%) parents say that it is a very serious problem that local schools are not getting enough money to do a good job, compared to a third of white parents (33%). Minority parents are also twice as likely as white parents to say fighting and weapons are very serious issues and are more likely to question whether local school district superintendents do enough to ensure that schools are safe and orderly. Teachers in minority schools are more likely to complain about large classes, poor teaching conditions and lack of parental support.

Wendy D. Puriefoy, President of Public Education Network said, In a national school environment that monopolizes resources toward increasing performance on standardized tests, this new report from Public Agenda reminds us all of the need for additional investments in creating powerful learning environments, promoting respectful dialogue, ensuring student safety, and strengthening healthy school cultures. The perception gap between adults and students of different races and income levels exposes that we, as a nation, continue to tolerate a public education system that is separate and unequal.

This edition of Reality Check does include some particularly heartening findings for those who seek silver linings. Majorities of all students -- black (66%), white (72%) and Hispanic (71%) -- report that they have had a teacher who was able to get them interested in a subject that they hadn't really liked before. Additionally, most parents (61%), across racial and ethnic groups, believe their children's schools are better than the ones they attended when they were young.

When Will We Listen?

Much of the testing and standards debate has focused on disparities between minority students and others, but this research shows, yet again, that just looking at curriculum and testing while ignoring basic conditions in schools not only puts the cart before the horse, but leaves the horse unshod, unfed and wandering through the fields, Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden said. These findings suggest very strongly that rowdy, unsettled schools are a significant hurdle to learning for far too many minority youngsters. What we have here is the unambiguous testimony of students, parents and teachers in minority schools -- they want policymakers to make addressing the school environment a major priority.

About Reality Check 2006 Reality Check 2006 is a set of public opinion tracking surveys on important issues in public education. From 1998 through 2002, Public Agenda conducted an annual survey of parents, teachers, students, employers and college professors covering standards, testing and accountability. In 2005 and 2006, Public Agenda revised and updated these surveys to cover a broader range of issues, including high school reform, school leadership, teacher preparation and quality, school funding and other issues. The tracking survey will be repeated periodically as a service of Public Agenda's Education Insights initiative.

Funding for Reality Check was provided by the GE Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and The Wallace Foundation.

For the full report go to:


The findings in Reality Check 2006: How Black and Hispanic Families Rate Their Schools are based on two focus groups with parents and telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,379 parents of children now in public school, 1,342 public school students in grades 6 through 12, and 721 public school teachers. Interviews with parents and were conducted between October 30 - December 18, 2005, interviews with students were conducted between October 30 - December 29, 2005 and interviews with teachers were conducted between November 19, 2005 - March 7, 2006. The margin of error for the sample of parents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points; the margin of error for the sample of students is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points; the margin of error for the sample of teachers is plus or minus 4 percentage points. It is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups. Full survey results can be found at

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

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