Professors of Education: It's How You Learn, Not What You Learn That's Most Important


NEW YORK, NY -- In the first comprehensive survey of the views of education professors, Public Agenda found nearly eight in ten teachers of teachers (79%) believe the public's approach toward learning is outmoded and mistaken, and suggest a different path for American education. In sharp contrast to the concerns expressed by typical Americans in earlier Public Agenda studies, small percentages of education professors feel maintaining discipline and order in the classroom (37%), stressing grammar as well as correct spelling and punctuation (19%), and expecting students to be on time and polite (12%) are absolutely essential qualities to impart to prospective teachers. Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education was released today by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Agenda.

Professors of education offer an alternative set of priorities which translate into highly evolved expectations for K-12 teachers. Education professors overwhelmingly consider it absolutely essential to convey to prospective teachers the importance of lifelong learning (84%), teaching students to be active learners (82%), and having high expectations of all their students (72%). Their emphasis on a love of learning leads them to downplay more traditional educational practices. Fifty-nine percent, for example, think academic sanctions such as the threat of flunking or being held back are not important in motivating kids to learn. Six in ten (61%) believe when a public school teacher faces a disruptive class it probably means the teacher has failed to make lessons engaging enough.

Professors of education have a particular vision of what teaching should be -- one that has some appealing features, said Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director of Public Agenda. But the disconnect between what the professors want and what most parents, teachers, business leaders and students say they need is often staggering. Their prescriptions for the public schools may appear to many Americans to be a type of rarified blindness given the public's concerns about school safety and discipline, and whether high school graduates have even basic skills, added Wadsworth.

Process Over Content

The process of learning is more important to education professors than whether or not students absorb specific knowledge. Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) say when K-12 teachers assign math or history questions, it is more important for kids to struggle with the process of finding the right answers than knowing the right answer. We have for so many years said to kids 'What's 7+5?' as if that was the important thing. The question we should be asking is 'Give me as many questions whose answer is 12...,' said a Chicago professor who was interviewed for this study.

Their focus on how to learn prompts a greater reliance on tools and less on teaching specific facts. For example, 57% think the use of calculators from the start will improve children's problem-solving skills. Only 10% of the general public, however, and 23% of public school teachers, agree. And only one-third of the professors (33%) would require students to know the names and geographic locations of the 50 states before getting a diploma. Why should they know that? a Los Angeles professor asked. They need to know how to find out where they are. When I need to know that, I can go look it up. That's the important piece, and here is what's hard to get parents to understand.

Standards In Concept Only?

Education professors initially appear to agree with most Americans on the need to challenge students to do more, but are often reluctant to support enforcing that with concrete tests. Two-thirds (66%) of teachers feel too little is expected of students in today's public schools, and, by the same percentage, think kids would pay more attention and study harder if higher standards were adopted. But only 49% would require grade school students to pass a test showing mastery of higher standards before they are promoted to junior high. And, while 76% would not allow kids to graduate from high school unless they clearly demonstrate they can write and speak English well, only 55% would require kids to show they know proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation before receiving a diploma -- a drop-off possibly explained by their lack of faith in standardized tests.

When asked to choose between standards and discipline on the one hand or more money for smaller classes and up-to-date equipment on the other, education professors overwhelmingly opt for additional financial resources (68% to 29%). The public, in contrast, is divided with 47% supporting more money and 45% higher standards and more discipline. Standards is nothing to get real excited about...It is somebody's quick and dirty solution to a very complicated problem, a Boston professor said.

Old-Fashioned Methods

From memorization to multiple-choice exams to rewards for good behavior to competition for academic honors, professors of education typically think of these methods of teaching as old-fashioned. Seventy-eight percent want more reliance on portfolios and other authentic assessments of students' academic progress. Authentic assessment provides a way to see different ways of knowing, more ways of solving problems...[but] parents and politicians like scores, because they're simple, a Los Angeles professor said. More than six in ten (64%) think schools should avoid competition for rewards such as honor rolls, and nearly half (47%) support giving students involved in a team project a group grade rather than grading individually. Seventy-eight percent want less reliance on multiple-choice exams, and the majority (60%) want less emphasis on memorization in today's classrooms.

What about Testing the Teachers?

Education professors express some reservations about their own students' ability to live up to their expectations. Three in four (75%) say too many of their prospective teachers have trouble writing essays free of mistakes in grammar and spelling, and 7 in 10 (72%) say they often or sometimes come across a student they seriously doubt has what it takes to be a teacher. Eighty-six percent believe education programs need to do a better job of weeding out unsuitable prospective teachers, and 67% endorse requiring teachers to pass tests demonstrating proficiency in key subjects before they are hired.

Teachers of teachers also worry they themselves may be too isolated from the classroom experience. In fact, 17% report they have never been a K-12 classroom teacher, and of the remaining 83%, half (51%) have not been a K-12 teacher in 16-plus years.

Different Drummers is based on a telephone survey conducted over the summer with 900 randomly selected professors of education who work in colleges and universities throughout the continental United States. The margin of error is plus or minus 3%. Prior to the survey, Public Agenda interviewed ten experts in the field of teacher education and conducted four focus groups with professors of education in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.

On the Public Schools

  • More than two-thirds (77%) of professors of education feel too many public school systems are top heavy with bureaucracy and administration.
  • Fifty-two percent would approve of allowing parents to choose among public schools, and an additional 35% would do so only under certain conditions.
  • Eighteen percent would approve of vouchers, and an additional 37% would do so only under certain conditions.
  • Two-thirds (65%) say the decline in public confidence in public schools is a result of negative press coverage.
  • Fifty-four percent feel many of the criticisms of public schools are politically motivated and come from right-wing groups who want to undermine public education.

On Core Curriculum

  • Seventy-seven percent of professors think it's critical for students to have an understanding of a Western civilization-based core curriculum because it has defined our culture.
  • Seventy-six percent think any student who receives a high school diploma without being exposed to this core body of knowledge has been cheated in a fundamental way, but only 16% would require kids to know classic works from Shakespeare and Plato, for example, before receiving a diploma.

Different Drummers was made possible by a grant from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The principal researcher and author of Different Drummers was Steve Farkas, Public Agenda Vice President and Director of Research. Public Agenda is solely responsible for determining the lines of inquiry, designing the questionnaire, and interpreting and reporting research results.

Different Drummers is the latest in a series of education studies which include Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools (1997), Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today (1996), Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform (1995), and First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools (1994). These explore the views of teens, teachers, the general public, parents with children in public schools, and community and education leaders. For information on Public Agenda reports, call 212/686-6610. Summaries are available online:

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.

Visit Learning Curve, our reporters guide to Education.

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