New Study Explores Views of Black and White Parents Toward Our Nation's Schools

We've Spent a Lot of Time on the Race Issues, and We Need to Redirect Some of Those Energies to Getting Our Children Better Educated


New York, NY -- African-American parents -- by a margin of eight to one -- want public schools to focus on raising academic standards over promoting integration and diversity, according to a new survey of black and white parents released today by the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization Public Agenda. We've spent a lot of time on the race issues, and we need to redirect some of those energies to getting our children better educated, a black parent from Pennsylvania interviewed for this study said. White parents are also focused on academics, and the views of both are explored in Time To Move On: African-American And White Parents Set An Agenda For Public Schools, a comprehensive national study conducted by Public Agenda in collaboration with the Public Education Network.

Nevertheless, integrated schools continue to be a desirable goal for both African-American and white parents. Approximately eight in ten black and white parents feel integrated schools can help improve racerelations in America, and 97 percent of parents agree that our country is very diverse and kids need to learn to get along with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. But half (51 percent) of black and 72 percent of white parents say integrated schools make little difference in the education childrenreceive, and three-quarters of black (73 percent) and white (77 percent) parents say too often, the schools work so hard to achieve integration that they end up neglecting their most important goal -- teaching kids.

The study revealed an added anxiety about integration for white parents who already feel insecure about the quality of the schools their children attend. They fear that black children who may be troubled for socioeconomic reasons will be placed in their children's schools. As a white parent in a Walnut Creek, CA focus group put it: I have lots of black students... in my kid's school. They redrew the lines and brought in a large section of low-income housing kids into my children's elementary school. Test scores dropped. These are kids that need help and they get it. But it dumbs down the curriculum, and it takes away from the gifted kids. Sixty-one percent of white parents say they had chosen a neighborhood based on the quality of its schools, and the majority express concern that discipline and safety issues, lower reading levels, or social problems may occur if a large number of black students were to come into a mostly white school. But 71 percent of white parents also say a school could do something to prevent problems.

The study's findings challenge some commonly held assumptions about what African-American parents consider most important, said Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director of Public Agenda. Most African-American parents do not think standardized tests are culturally biased and very few want race to be a factor when choosing the best teachers for their children. And while they bring to the issue of public education experiences that differ from those of white parents, their concern about quality education and academic standards and their agenda for achieving these is nearly identical.

'I Don't Care If He's Green!'

Three-quarters of African-American parents say race should not be a factor when choosing a teacher or superintendent for a predominantly black school district. I want them [the school board] not to beprejudiced, a black parent in a Cleveland focus group said. As long as he's doing his job, I don't care if he's green! Black parents (68 percent) do express concern that because of cultural differences white teachers are not likely to understand how to deal with African-American students. Nearly seven in ten also think teachers and principals have lower expectations for black students due to racial stereotypes. But despite these concerns, the majority of African-American parents say mostly black districts should hire the best candidates possible, regardless of race.

Is Testing Biased?

On the issue of standardized tests, 44 percent of African-American parents say they measure real differences in educational achievement, while another 18 percent say whites tend to do better becauseblack students have low expectations of themselves. Only 28 percent think the tests are culturally biased against black students. Nearly eight in ten black parents want schools' differences in black and white achievement test scoring publicized, since this may help to set reforms in motion to solve the problem.

Common Ground

Black and white parents bring different concerns and fears to discussions of the public schools, but share a common agenda for their children's learning. In fact, on nine of twelve questions dealing with the essential characteristics of good schools -- from academic basics and social promotion to school safety and the teaching of values -- black and white parents come within five percentage points of each other in their responses. African-American parents are no more likely than white parents to say their children have had teachers who expected too little academically or suggested their children be tested for a learning disability. African-American parents are, however, considerably more likely than white parents to say poor academic achievement among black students is at a crisis point.

In a series of community conversations to be held in the months ahead, the Public Education Network and Public Agenda will explore these issues further, said Wendy Puriefoy, President of the Public EducationNetwork. We are not expecting every conversation to be easy, but we do know clearly, based on this research, that African-American and white parents want to talk first and foremost about ensuring that their children attend schools with high academic standards, qualified teachers and involved parents.

Grants by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Inc., the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation made this research possible. Over the next year, Public Agenda and the Public Education Network will sponsorcommunity discussions on the issues identified in

Time To Move On. Once additional funding is secured, a study of the views of Hispanic and Asian parents will be undertaken. Time To Move On is based on a national telephone survey of 800 African-American and 800 white parents conducted in the spring of 1998 (margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent). In addition, Public Agenda held eight focus groups across the country, interviewed over 20 experts in the field, and conducted nearly two dozen follow-up telephone interviews with parents who had participated in the survey. Complete questionnaire results may be obtained from Public Agenda for $40.00 (phone: 212/686-6610, fax: 212/889-3461, e-mail:, Web site:

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 U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

The mission of the Public Education Network (PEN) is to create systems of public education that result in high achievement for every child. Created in 1991, PEN is a national nonprofit network of member Local Education Funds (LEFs) whose programs impact the lives of five million children in public schools across the country. LEFs are nonprofit, independent community-based organizations that engage citizens, parents, and policymakers in the improvement of public education.

Quotes From the Study

I went to school and told the teacher point-blank, 'He's giving surface answers: I can hardly read the stuff, and you mark it 'good'! How can it be good when you can't read it? I expect you to motivate this kid. I want you to have high expectations of my child. Don't be afraid to expect it.'

-- African-American parent, Baltimore County, MD

Do you know how hard it was to find a good school system? We won't be able to afford the lifestyle our neighbors live, but at least we won't have to worry about the schools. Why should it be this hard to find good schools?

-- White parent, Scarsdale, NY

A lot of times we jump the gun, we get defensive, we feel it's a black-white issue. It may be, but because of experience and our history and what we've gone through, when something happens, boom -- that's the way we read it.

-- African-American parent, Oakland, CA

My child's school has three black kids; they're doing well. If the majority of blacks have bad schools it means someone's not doing their job. It's not because they can't learn.

-- White parent, Walnut Creek, CA

In order to get the higher-income white kids into the projects, they have a magnet school. I'm ticked because my son wasn't allowed to go to that school. This school has everything; I have to drive past it every day. It makes my blood boil.

-- African-American parent, Raleigh, NC

I looked for a neighborhood with a good school, moved there, and then they told me he's going to be sent out to another schools that's not as good. I got so mad.

-- White parent, Raleigh, NC

Teachers can't teach without parents. Make parents accountable.

-- African-American parent, Cleveland, OH

The amount of power teachers and administrators have to discipline and control their classes has diminished greatly over the years. When I went to school, teachers demanded respect and used to get it. If I had a problem with a teacher, the first thing my mother said was, 'What did you do?' Now the teacher is always wrong.

-- White parent, Secaucus, NJ

I would like to see more control in the schools as far as weapons and drugs. I send her to school, I expect them to have control over the drugs, the gangs.

-- African-American parent, Oakland, CA

If you are talking about a kid from New York City who really wants to learn and you bring him in, then I am more than happy to have him in the classroom. But don't put in a kid with a discipline problem -- he isgoing to hurt my child's education.

-- White parent, Secaucus, NJ

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