A Lot More on Their Minds Than Testing

Survey Analysis Shows that Unruly Students, Demoralized Teachers, Uninvolved Parents, Bureaucracy Edge Out Standards as Top Concerns


New analysis of a decade of research by Public Agenda reveals sobering views from parents, teachers, students, principals, employers, college professors

New York -- With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the standards movement is in full sway in American schools, and support for higher standards and accountability remains solid among teachers, parents and students. But beneath the surface, teachers are discouraged, administrators are besieged by politics and many teachers and students worry about an unruly, disrespectful and sometimes violent atmosphere in American high schools.

These and other findings are part of a major multiyear review of Americans views on schools conducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research and policy organization.

Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools, provides never-before available analysis drawn from more than 25 major opinion studies on where major stakeholders in education--parents, students, teachers, school leaders, employers and college professors--stand on a wide range of critical issues.

Where We Are Now is funded by Washington Mutual, the nations sixth-largest financial services company. The report reveals a strong commitment by those involved in our schools to ensuring that children acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in todays fast-paced world, said Washington Mutual Chairman, President and CEO Kerry K. Killinger.

Public Agenda's President Deborah Wadsworth noted that, The standards movement has taken hold in American schools and continues to enjoy broad support. But there are some troublesome fault lines. Teachers in particular seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. They believe in higher standards but often feel they cant count on students to make the effort or parents and administrators to back them up. Meanwhile, employers and professors still have major complaints about youngsters writing and basic math skills.

Standards Yes... But

Where We Are Now finds that strong majorities of parents (85%), teachers (75%), employers (79%) and professors (79%) say students work harder if they know they will be tested. Large majoritiesat least 8 in 10also say that knowing what is expected improves students academic performance. Similarly large majorities also believe students should pass a standardized test to be promoted.

The review finds virtually no nostalgia among teachers or others for returning to the pre-standards policies of the past (2% or less for all adult groups). Nearly all students (92%) say they take tests seriously, and only a handful (5%) feels overwhelmed by the pressure.

But nearly half of teachers (48%) say some in their schools get diplomas even though they dont have the needed skills. More than 4 in 10 teachers say they themselves have promoted students who should have been held back.

Teachers also are uncomfortable being judged on how well their students perform on standardized tests, and most reject the idea of tying teachers salaries to students scores (76%). Still, while most teachers say schools today place far too much emphasis on standardized test scores (84%), they also acknowledge that testing can be useful.

Low Work Ethic, Unruly Behavior

An overwhelming majority of teachers (81%) take parents to task for not making sure their children study hard and behave well. Parents acknowledge they could do better, with just half (50%) claiming they are successful in getting their own children to do their best in school. And majorities of high school teachers (82%), students (70%) and parents (56%) concede that disrespectful student behavior is common.

Where We Are Now reveals that more than 4 in 10 teachers say that in their schools, teachers spend more time trying to keep order in the classroom than actually teaching. High school students themselves are concerned about school violencesizeable numbers report that serious fights happen somewhat regularly (40%) and that there is a serious problem with bullying (32%). Majorities also report that their schools have too much cursing (77%), too many people in the hallways (64%) and too many students who abuse drugs or alcohol (62%). Only about a third say students in their own high school treat each other with respect, and only about 1 in 5 say teachers are treated respectfully by students.

Parents vs. Employers and Professors--Are We Talking about the Same Schools?

A large majority of parents (73%) gives their local schools positive ratings and most believe that academic expectations are about right (67%).

But those who either hire or teach public school graduates are less satisfied. Most employers and college professors continue to express profound dissatisfaction with specific skills of the public school graduates they encounter. Majorities are especially critical of youngsters grammar and spelling, their ability to write clearly and their capacity to do simple math. Still, both groups are somewhat more likely than they were five years ago to give their local public schools positive ratings.

Administration, Accountability--and Frustration

According to Public Agendas analysis, its not standards and accountability that make superintendents and principals tear their hair out. Red tape and lack of autonomy plague administrators. More than 8 in 10 complain about keeping up with government mandates, and for superintendents especially, sizeable numbers say they spend too much time dealing with litigation (50%), complaining parents (48%) and union issues (43%).

Most administrators say they want more freedom to make decisions, especially when it comes to rewarding outstanding teachers (76% of superintendents and 67% of principals)and removing ineffective ones (72% and 67%, respectively). Only 5% of superintendents say their talented colleagues are most likely to leave education because of low pay and prestige, but 81% say it would be because of politics and bureaucracy.

Where We Are Now: The Findings 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools

  1. The publicincluding parents, teachers and studentsbelieves that setting standards and enforcing them promotes learning. Social promotion, they say, harms kids.
  2. Standards and promotion policies have changed in recent years, and attitudes about local schools have improved. Even so, many students still move ahead without acquiring needed skills.
  3. The vast majority of parents and teachers say standardized tests are useful, and few students are overly anxious about them. But people also think tests can be misused, and many say theres too much emphasis on them.
  4. While teachers support high academic standards, they have qualms about some aspects of testing.
  5. Teachers are troubled by lack of parental support and poor student behavior. Teachers also say their views are generally ignored by decision makers.
  6. Americans say all students need the basics, and parents want their own children prepared for college. For most, a college diploma is as indispensable as a high school diploma used to be.
  7. There is a dramatic gap between the way employers and college professors rate high school graduates and the way parents and teachers view them.
  8. The vast majority of employers and professors continue to have serious doubts about public school graduates basic skillsespecially when it comes to writing.
  9. Teachers say lack of parental involvement is a serious problem. According to both teachers and parents, parental involvement should focus on what goes on at home rather than on school management issues.
  10. Teachers, parents and students continue to voice concern about the rough-edged, uncivil atmosphere in many high schools. Few see high schools as places of respect or civility.
  11. Superintendents and principals say their biggest problems are politics and bureaucracy. Most want more autonomy over their own schools.
  12. Holding schools and educators directly accountable for student achievement is still uncommon. Teachers and principals have doubts about it, while parents and the public tend to support it.

Where We Are Now draws upon findings from more than two dozen national public opinion studies conducted by Public Agenda and others over the past decade. All surveys reported in Where We Are Now are based on nationally representative random samples of respondents. Sample size, interview length, method and field period vary depending on the research goals for each particular study. Complete question wording, full responses and sample size for each finding cited in this report can be found in the Complete Survey Findings for Where We Are Now at

The study was written by Public Agenda Senior Vice Presidents Jean Johnson and Ann Duffett, with the assistance of staff members Jackie Vine and Leslie Moye. Full copies of this and all Public Agenda education reports since 1998 are available free of charge in PDF format at You can order a printed version for $5 plus $2 shipping and handling by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610. Quantity discounts are available.

Public Agenda, based in New York City, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inform leaders about the publics views and to educate citizens about government policy.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Public Agenda is now making a decade of surveys and opinion analyses on public education available online free of charge. Designed for use by journalists and researchers, this site is an invaluable source of never-before available information.

New from Public Agenda


Public Agenda knows what it takes to fuel progress on critical issues.
We need your support to keep things moving!

Join the Community


Take Action