Employers and College Professors Voice Frustration Over Graduates' Academic Weakness


NEW YORK, NY -- Employers and college professors reach dramatically different conclusions from parents, students and K-12 teachers over whether public school students are academically prepared for the work place or college, a new Public Agenda study shows. The findings from the five groups surveyed on the impact of higher standards in the classroom were released today. Public Agenda's Reality Check is a special feature of Education Week's annual report Quality Counts.

Sixty-three percent of employers and 76% of professors of college freshman and sophomores believe a high school diploma from a local public school is no guarantee that a student has learned the basics, but only 26% of K-12 teachers, 32% of parents and 22% of high school students have similar concerns. Nearly seven in ten employers (68%) say the graduates they see are not ready to succeed in the work place, and 52% of college professors say the students they observe lack the skills necessary to succeed in college. They can't spell. And there are other major flaws in their memos. The tenses are not consistent and all kinds of things are wrong. It all goes back to the schools, an employer in New York City said in a focus group conducted for this survey.

'Reality Check' presents a mixed picture, Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's Executive Director said. Students told us their schools emphasize academic achievement, but that most of their classmates do the bare minimum to get by. Parents say their states and school districts are raising academic standards, but few know how their children's skills measure up to those of students in other regions. While nearly half of K-12 teachers state they expect more from students due to local standards, a similar number report their expectations have not changed. And college professors and employers are deeply troubled about high school graduates' academic abilities. A sense that the standards movement lacks teeth emerges from this research, although clearly the word is out on the need for academic standards to be higher, Wadsworth added.

The Standards Banner

The majority of public schools appear to be focused on standards. Eighty-eight percent of K-12 teachers say formal discussions among faculty and administrators about improving academic performance in their schools have occurred; nine in ten students say their schools place a heavy emphasis on academics; and only 26% of parents say too little attention is paid to this issue at the meetings they attend. In addition, three-quarters of employers (78%) and professors (76%) say they are aware local schools are working to raise standards.

Not a Blanket Condemnation

But the heightened attention paid to academic standards has yet to produce the results employers and college professors expect -- large majorities give fair or poor ratings to public school graduates for basic math skills, grammar and spelling, and clear writing ability. Recent graduates, however, receive better grades on some of the new basic skills many consider useful in the modern economy. In fact, the majority of employers and professors say recent graduates can work well with others and have good or excellent computer skills.

Urban Schools and Standards

Urban high school teachers mirror, albeit to a lesser degree, the concerns expressed by employers and college professors over academic achievement. For example, only 34% of urban teachers say their communities' public schools have higher academic standards than private schools, compared to 59% of nonurban teachers, and only one in five urban high school teachers (19%), versus nearly half (47%) of nonurban teachers, believes his/her students have the skills needed to do well in college. Somewhere along the line...the message came from higher up that they needed to lower the standards for children in high-impact neighborhoods, said a teacher in a Los Angeles focus group.

Problems That Are Not There

Some specific complaints that sometimes emerge in focus groups or informal conversations with K-12 teachers and education reformers do not appear to be widespread. For example, while concern has occasionally been voiced about parental interference, nearly three-quarters of teachers (74%) say they have rarely or never been pressured by parents or administrators to promote a student they wanted to hold back. The same percentage of teachers say most parents support their efforts to push students academically. Concern about professional development has also been raised, but 85% of teachers say professional development opportunities are present, and a strong majority (77%) think the support and mentoring of new teachers by their schools is good or excellent.

Good News

For standards advocates and others there is some heartening news. By overwhelming margins, parents and teachers, as well as employers and college professors, believe academic performance can be improved by setting clear guidelines for what students are expected to learn and know. Fifty percent of high school teachers say the number of students taking advanced-placement or honors classes has increased in recent years. And the majority of parents think their schools do a good or excellent job of quickly informing them if their child has an academic problem, providing them with guidance on how to get their children excited about learning, and sending home progress reports between report cards.

Based on these surveys, parents, kids, and teachers are all talking about the need to do better. Good intentions may produce results, but the judgments of the professors and employers are sobering. If parents, teachers, and students don't really grasp what the outside world expects of them, we are witnessing a communications gap of enormous and potentially devastating consequences, added Wadsworth.

Reality Check is based on five telephone surveys within the continental United States. These include a survey of 700 parents with children currently attending public schools in grades K-12; 700 public school students in middle or high schools; 700 K-12 public school teachers; 250 employers who make hiring decisions about employees who have recently graduated from high school or college; and 250 college professors at two- and four-year colleges who taught freshmen or sophomores in the last two years. The margin of error for parents, students, and teachers is plus or minus 4%; for employers and college professors it is plus or minus 7%. Six exploratory focus groups were conducted with public school teachers, students and parents in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Alabama.

The Public Agenda researchers and authors of Reality Check include Steve Farkas, Senior Vice President and Director of Research, Jean Johnson, Senior Vice President and Director of Programs, and Ann Duffett, Senior Research Associate. Funding for this research was provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Copies of Quality Counts '98 in which Reality Check is featured can be obtained from Education Week by calling 301/280-3100 or going online: Additional Reality Check data is available on Public Agenda's new Web site, Public Agenda Online, Also available is Reality Check: Complete Questionnaire Results which can be ordered from Public Agenda after January 8th for $40.00 (call 212/686-6610).

Reality Check will be repeated by Public Agenda for Quality Counts a year from now. Anyone interested in considering commissioning state-specific studies in the next cycle should contact Alex Trilling at Public Agenda.

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 social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

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