Half of Americans Say High School Diploma No Guarantee of Basics


NEW YORK, NY -- Public support for public schools is far more fragile than many educators would like to believe, but a window of opportunity does exist to reverse the downward spiral in public attitudes toward local schools. This is according to a new Public Agenda study, Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform, prepared in collaboration with the Institute for Educational Leadership.

When almost six in ten parents with children in public school say they would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so, it's time for reformers to take heed of citizens' concerns with the public school system, said Public Agenda's Executive Director Deborah Wadsworth. Citizens are not yet ready to abandon the public system, but unless schools begin to deliver on what the public considers to be the essential elements of education, support for public schools is in jeopardy.

Americans surveyed in Assignment Incomplete think private schools do a better job than public schools in areas they are most concerned with school safety, higher standards, order, and smaller classes. While nine in ten Americans say teaching the basics is absolutely essential, almost half (47%) do not believe that a high school diploma from their own local public high school guarantees that a student has mastered the basics. Americans, however, have not reached consensus on alternatives. When presented with a scenario of long-term school failure, only 28% embrace the concept of school vouchers and 10% of privatization. Additionally, 28% want to overhaul the public schools and 20% want to give schools more money.

Findings from Assignment Incomplete show a public dissatisfied with public school policies and practices, but a public still desirous of fixing the schools. For the reform movement to be successful, the public's remaining support cannot be squandered. Public priorities must be addressed and soon, said Michael Usdan, President of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

Assignment Incomplete examines four subject areas: why support for public schools is in jeopardy; why Americans are so focused on the basics; whether people are really committed to higher standards; and whether they value education in and of itself. Conducted in the summer of 1995, the comprehensive study is based on a national telephone survey of 1,200 Americans, including 439 parents with children currently attending public schools, and 237 public school teachers. The margin of error for the general public portion of the survey is plus/minus 3.4%. It is also based on a mail survey of 734 decision-makers in business, government, the media and other sectors. The mail survey explored the views of some 417 educational administrators across the country as well. The study also draws on results from a dozen focus groups in different parts of the country.

Key findings from Assignment Incomplete:

Public versus Private:

  • Sixty-one percent of Americans say private schools are more likely to provide order and discipline in the classroom; 18% say their local public schools are better at this. Fifty-three percent say private schools have higher academic standards, versus only 24% who think standards are higher in local public schools. Fifty-one percent say private schools provide more safety and security; 20% say public schools are safer. Fifty-four percent say private schools are better at providing an environment that promotes values such as honesty and responsibility; 17% say public schools are better in this area.
  • Seventy-five percent of teachers say public schools in their community are better than private ones, but only 33% of the public and 29% of leaders agree.
  • Fifty-one percent of teachers say private schools are better at removing routinely disruptive children from classrooms. Sixty percent say private schools are more likely to provide smaller class size.
  • Only 33% of Americans think private school teachers are better than public school teachers; and 68% of leaders say teachers in public schools are the same or better than teachers in private schools.
  • Among those who say private schools provide the better education, 57% of the public and 74% of leaders say it is because their approach to educating students is more effective, not because private schools are choosier about which students they admit.
  • Forty-six percent, almost half, of America's leaders say their local public schools are only doing a fair or poor job.

Focus on the Basics:

  • Nine in ten Americans (92%) say teaching the basics is absolutely essential, as do 99% of leaders, 98% of teachers and 100% of school administrators.
  • Sixty-five percent of leaders say a high school diploma does not guarantee the student has learned the basics; 32% of teachers and 33% of school administrators agree.
  • Eighty percent of Americans feel teaching computer skills is absolutely essential.
  • Sixty-three percent believe American history and geography are absolutely essential; 59% add biology, physics and chemistry.

Higher Standards for All:

  • Seventy-one percent of Americans say with higher standards youngsters will pay more attention to their school work and study harder. Seventy-two percent say youngsters will actually learn more.
  • Only 13% of both teachers and the public think today's public schools expect students to learn too much. Seventy-five percent of leaders say public schools' expectations of academic achievement are too little.
  • No more than 10% of any group the general public, parents, teachers, or leaders feel today's students are under too much academic pressure. In contrast, 40% of Americans feel students face the most pressure from friends, 27% from troubled families, and 20% from the threat of drugs and crime in their neighborhoods.

The Value of Education:

  • Fifty-nine percent of the general public and 57% of teachers say a diploma is important because employers are reluctant to hire people without one, rather than because it represents knowledge and skills. In contrast, 60% of leaders say a diploma is important because it represents skills and knowledge that are useful on the job.
  • Only 11% of teachers say academics are the most important factor in career success; 50% say inner drive is most important; and 33% say knowing how to deal with people well.
  • Seventy-one percent of Americans agree with the statement, people who are highly educated often turn out to be 'book smart' but lack the common sense and understanding of regular folks.

According to Assignment Incomplete, Americans' views on knowledge and learning are highly pragmatic. They want their children to succeed socially and academically, but many are skeptical of the value of high academic achievement. A culture that glamorizes mediocre levels of learning is hardly compatible with global forces that daily put a higher premium on knowledge, said Wadsworth. As with latent health hazards, people deserve to know that, 'A lack of real learning could be hazardous to your child's health!'

Assignment Incomplete is a follow-up report to Public Agenda's 1994 study, First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools. It is also a part of a three-year project Public Agenda has undertaken with the Institute for Educational Leadership to work with communities across the country to sponsor in-depth discussions of education issues among educators, parents, business people, and community residents. It was made possible by grants from Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Procter & Gamble Fund, TRW Inc., and The George Gund Foundation. Additional Public Agenda reports on education reform include, The Public's Attitudes Toward the Basics; The Broken Contract: Connecticut Citizens Look at Public Education; 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.

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.

The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) is a 30-year old nonpartisan and nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop, inform, and support leaders for the purposes of improving educational, economic, and civic opportunities for all.

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