NEW YORK, NY -- First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools issues a clear wake-up call to policymakers and education reformers. In this new study, Public Agenda explains why support for education reform by the public is languishing. It highlights ten findings that range from the public's focus on safety, order and mastery of the basics, to acceptance of a role for schools in sex education, to support for teaching the values of tolerance and equality.
First Things First is in essence a report card from the public on the education reform movement. A potential ground swell of support is being seriously jeopardized in two important ways, said Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director of Public Agenda. First, and probably foremost, reform agendas fail to address the public's number one concern, which is making schools safe, orderly, and purposeful enough for learning to take place. Second, people are suspicious that reformers are promoting teaching techniques that are fuzzy and experimental at the expense of the basics.
Three distinct strands of public opinion research on school reform are explored in this study: the degree to which Americans support education reform measures backed by leadership; the values Americans want to convey to their children and the role they think public schools should play in teaching these values; and who Americans think should be making decisions about how to run the schools. It is based on a national telephone survey conducted in late summer of more than 1,100 Americans, including 550 parents of children currently in public school. A distinctive feature of this study is detailed analyses of the views of white and African-American parents and parents identified as traditional Christians, all with children currently in public school. In preparation for the survey, focus groups were conducted by Public Agenda in Birmingham (Alabama), Des Moines, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia.
Not all of the goals of reform are rejected by the public. In fact, citizens endorse the movement's core principles, including holding students to higher academic standards. But, in the public's mind, higher standards cannot be achieved without prior attention to safety, order and the basics. These findings occur across all demographic lines with no significant disagreements about these fundamentals among white, African-American and traditional Christian parents.
It would be a shame for reform to fall apart for want of leadership's willingness to stop and listen, said Wadsworth, and give the public's concerns the same attention and respect, the same consideration, they would naturally give the 'experts'.
Highlights of the public's responses to education reform measures backed by leadership include:
With regard to what values Americans want conveyed to their children and what role public schools should play in teaching these values, highlights from the study include:
Highlights on who Americans think should be making decisions about how to run the schools include:
First Things First is a continuation of research into education reform attitudes conducted by Public Agenda since 1991. Previous Public Agenda reports on school reform include, Divided Within, Besieged Without: The Politics of Education in Four American School Districts, Educational Reform: The Players and the Politics, and Crosstalk: The Public, The Experts, and Competitiveness.
First Things First was funded by a diverse group of foundations and organizations with an interest in education reform and improving the schools. These include The Annie E. Casey, Ashland Oil, BellSouth, Danforth, General Mills, MacArthur and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as the Carnegie Corporation, and the Business Roundtable. Public Agenda is solely responsible for developing the lines of inquiry, designing the research instruments, and analyzing and reporting the results.
Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization working to help citizens better understand complex policy issues and to help the nation's leaders better understand the public's point of view. It was founded in 1975 by Daniel Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance.