Half of Teachers Say Academic Standards Have Yet to Change How Much They Expect from Students, Public Agenda Survey Finds

Poor ratings on students writing abilities but computer skills are up


NEW YORK -- About half of teachers say that their state or school district guidelines have not led them to expect any more from their students, according to a new nationwide survey from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Agenda.

This finding, part of the Reality Check 2000 special report published by Education Week in its February 16 issue, raises questions about whether the standards movement has yet succeeded in changing practices and expectations in the majority of public school classrooms nationwide. Many experts consider standards to be a crucial step in improving public schools, and every state except for Iowa has adopted some of the movement's elements.

Only 44% of teachers say they expect more from students because of guidelines. Almost half of teachers (48%) say their colleagues still pass students based on effort instead of how much they learn, while the other half (48%) say that promotion is tied exclusively to achievement, as most standards advocates recommend. Nor have these numbers changed much compared with the previous two years when the annual survey, Reality Check, was also conducted. A sizeable number of students (40%) and parents (41%) agree that effort, rather than learning, can get one passed into the next grade.

The standards legislation that has been passed appears to be having mixed results in changing the day-to-day lives of teachers and students, said Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. There is no doubt that there are positive developments in many areas, but this research is a warning that change will not filter down to the classroom automatically.

Reality Check 2000 is based on more than 2,300 interviews from across the country with roughly 600 each of teachers, parents and students, and about 250 each of employers and college professors. The margin of error is plus or minus 6 percentage points for employers and professors and 4 percentage points for the other groups. The research was made possible by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, with additional support from the GE Fund.

It's hugely important to know how the stakeholders in education feel about efforts to improve the nation's schools, said Virginia B. Edwards, the editor and publisher of Education Week. Just as important is knowing where they agree and disagree. Public Agenda's Reality Check, which we are pleased to include as a special supplement, performs both of these vital functions.

Researchers also found evidence to counter fears among some school district administrators and state commissioners that the public is beginning to resist tough standards as more students are held back or forced to attend summer school. As in the past two years, majorities of parents, teachers, employers, professors and even students say it is better for a child to repeat a grade than to have one promoted to the next level without having learned necessary skills. And last year's Reality Check found that 70% of teachers say they have never or rarely been pressured to promote youngsters who are not ready. (The question was not repeated this year.)

Other findings include:

  • For the third year in a row, about three out of four professors and employers find high school graduates lacking in their writing skills and work habits. However, grades for computer skills have improved: 75% of professors and 64% of employers say incoming freshmen are good or excellent in this area, compared to 61% and 53% two years ago.
  • As before, few parents (18%) say they know a lot about how their children compare to others across the state, and not many more (21%) say they know a lot about how well qualified their children's teachers are. Parents who say they are aware that their school districts publish average test scores, student-teacher ratios and other such facts in the form of school report cards are more likely to say they know a lot about their children's schools. But it is uncertain whether these parents learned what they know from these report cards or if these parents are simply more involved and knowledgeable.
  • Reformers should note that some widely discussed ideas for increasing accountability are not endorsed by the majority of teachers. As in last year's survey, few teachers (22%) favor financial rewards for teachers and principals if their students show improvement. Few professors (36%) support the idea either, but 59% of parents and 51% of employers say it is a good one.
  • The general public is unimpressed by the current teachers corps. More than half of parents (57%), employers (58%) and professors (57%) say young people entering the profession are at best just average. But most teachers (63%) say new teachers are better than average. More information on attitudes about attracting new teachers will emerge from a separate survey that Public Agenda will release in May.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in New York City that is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced education materials. Its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and inform citizens about government policy. It was founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former secretary of state, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author.

Public Agenda Online ( is a widely acclaimed Web site that contains statistics and results from other surveys on education and 18 other public policy topics. Findings from the Reality Check series and Public Agenda's many previous surveys on public schools are also available under PA Research and Publications.

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