Education Reform Movement in Jeopardy, Public's Priorities Not in Sync with Leadership's


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:

  • Eighty-eight percent of respondents or almost nine in ten support not allowing students to graduate from high school unless they demonstrate they can write and speak English well.
  • Eighty-one percent say schools should pass students only when they have learned what was expected; only 16% say it is better to pass students if they have made an effort and tried hard.
  • Eighty-six percent say students should learn to do arithmetic by hand before starting to use calculators.
  • The degree of support for and opposition to heterogeneous grouping mixing students of different achievement levels together in class is consistent across demographic lines, with 39% of African-American parents in favor and 31% opposed, and 38% of white parents in support of and 33% against.
  • Seventy-three percent feel removing disruptive students would be effective in improving academic performance. Only 28% of Americans endorse the concept of spanking to help improve how much students learn in school. (The study was conducted after the caning of Michael Fay in Singapore.)
  • African-American parents are far more troubled by the state of their local public schools in virtually every area of performance. Seventy percent of African-American parents say academic standards in their schools are too low, compared to 49% of white parents.

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:

  • Ninety-five percent of Americans say schools should teach honesty and the importance of telling the truth and respect for others regardless of their racial or ethnic background.
  • Eighty percent of Americans say schools should teach that girls can succeed at anything boys can. Only 35%, however, feel schools should teach that women need to have careers outside the home to be fulfilled.
  • Sixty-one percent of those surveyed say schools should teach respect for people who are homosexual. Traditional Christian parents with children in public schools offer similar support.
  • Eighty-one percent of Americans say schools should not bring in a guest speaker who argues that the Holocaust never happened, and 71% oppose inviting a speaker who advocates black separatism.
  • An overwhelming majority of Americans support the role schools play in teaching the biology of sex and pregnancy with only 14% feeling schools spend too much time on sex education. Consensus falls, however, when topics such as abortion, sex outside marriage, homosexuality and the age at which sex education should be introduced are raised.
  • Only 15% of parents say they've ever seen anything in their children's textbooks that struck them as very inappropriate. Among traditional Christian parents it's 23%.

Highlights on who Americans think should be making decisions about how to run the schools include:

  • More than half, 58%, say when it comes to making decisions about how the schools should be run they are distrustful of elected officials in Washington; 41% are distrustful of their state's governor.
  • Roughly half (54%) of Americans question teachers' judgment in matters of discipline, one of their priority areas of concern.
  • The public understands the difficulty teachers face today 55% say parents are doing a worse job and 33% say teachers are doing a worse job than when they themselves were in school. Six in ten Americans (61%) say a student is more likely to succeed if he comes from a stable and supportive family but attends a poor school than if he comes from a troubled family but attends a good school.

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.

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