NEW YORK, NY -- Restoring order in public schools is a top priority of the nation's public school teachers, according to a new Public Agenda study, Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today. Black and Hispanic teachers, whose views receive special attention in this report, and the general public agree. Both teachers and the public support similar solutions including school policies that focus on persistent troublemakers in the classroom. While the majority of teachers downplay the threat of violence in their schools, they go beyond the public in their approval of a proposal to ban students caught with weapons or drugs.
In addition to similar views concerning order and discipline, teachers and the public agree to a surprising degree on what should be taught in the classroom, including basic academic and computer skills. Teachers also share the public's skepticism over heterogeneous grouping and the early use of calculators by students, proposals strongly favored by reformers in many communities.
Teachers and the public part company, however, when rating the performance of their local public schools. Teachers feel public schools should receive high marks. They also believe, unlike the general public, that their local public schools outperform private schools in key areas such as providing students with better preparation for college and higher academic standards. Asked to compare public to private schools in 13 categories, teachers rate public school performance as better than or equal to private schools in 8 of the 13. The public, on the other hand, feels public schools outperform private in just 2 areas.
It is not surprising that teachers and the public seem to assess the performance of public schools through very different lenses, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's Executive Director. Teachers talk about families in turmoil, schools and communities with inadequate resources, contentious school boards, and top-heavy education bureaucracies. In their view, they're doing a good job given tough circumstances. Teachers also do not seem to share the sense of urgency the public and community leaders feel about the issue of higher standards. Only half of teachers think standards are too low in their local schools. Inadequate funding, overcrowded classrooms and disorder are far more pressing problems to teachers. While 65% of community leaders and 47% of the public believe a high school diploma is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics, only 31% of teachers agree.
Education reformers and policymakers who consider higher academic standards a centerpiece of their movement should not count on teachers to be a driving force, added Wadsworth. It may be that the academic energies of even the most motivated teachers are sapped by what they consider to be the stressful day-to-day demands of the classroom. From the teachers' perspective, order and civility, not higher standards, provide the infrastructure that good teaching builds on.
Beyond examining teachers' attitudes on how well public schools are doing, and their views on what children need to learn in school, Given the Circumstances explores their opinions on the values wars some communities face over issues such as sex and AIDs education. The study is based on a national telephone survey of 1,164 public school teachers which was completed in December. Of the total sample, 800 were randomly selected teachers from the fourth through twelfth grades (margin of error plus or minus 3.4%), and the remainder were an oversampling of black and Hispanic teachers. Findings from dozens of focus groups with public school teachers, and an additional national telephone survey of 237 teachers completed in May of 1995, are also included. For a full description of the methodology, see pages 47 and 48 of the report.
Public School Performance:
On Order and Discipline:
On Academics and Higher Standards:
Given the Circumstances was made possible by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The National PTA, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Philip Morris Companies Inc., and The George Gund, Rockefeller, William and Flora Hewett, US West, and General Mills Foundations. Public Agenda is solely responsible for developing the lines of inquiry, designing the research instruments, and analyzing and reporting the results.
Given the Circumstances is a follow-up to Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform and First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools, in which the views of the general public, parents with children in public schools, and community and education leaders were explored. Other Public Agenda studies on education reform include: Committed to Change: Missouri Citizens and Public Education; The Basics: Parents Talk About Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and the Schools; Professional Development for Teachers: The Public's View; and The Broken Contract: Connecticut Citizens Look at Public Education. For information on how to obtain copies of these, or additional Public Agenda education reform reports, call 212/686-6610.
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.