Public School Teenagers Call For Higher Standards, More Order and Discipline in Classroom

They practically hand you a diploma


NEW YORK, NY -- Public high school students want their schools to have much tougher academic standards and higher expectations, according to Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools, a new study released today by Public Agenda. More than 7 in 10 high school teens think most kids will pay greater attention and learn more with higher standards, and almost two-thirds (65%) readily admit they could do much better in school if they tried. Three in 4 think students should only pass if they have learned the required materials, and significant majorities think a strong command of English should be required for a high school diploma (79% of white, 71% of Hispanic, and 68% of African-American students).

Half of teens in public schools today told us their schools fail to challenge them to do their best. Students across the country spoke about how little work they do to earn acceptable grades and, consequently, how boring and meaningless their classes are, said Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director of Public Agenda. Central to their learning, students repeatedly told us, are their classroom teachers. The students seem to be crying out for the adults in their lives to take a stand and inspire them to do more, added Wadsworth.

Seventy-nine percent of students say they would learn more if schools enforced being on time along with the completion of homework. You can just glide through. You can copy somebody's homework at the beginning of the period. I mean you can do whatever you want... They practically hand you a diploma, a Seattle public school teen said in a focus group held for this study. These thoughts were echoed by students in more than a half- dozen focus groups held nationwide.

In addition to calling for higher standards, 7 in 10 public school teenagers say there are too many disruptive students in their classes. In fact, 8 in 10 teens say the removal of unruly teens from regular classes would help them learn more (53% say this would help them learn a lot more; 29% say it would help them learn a little more). This is consistent across racial lines with white, African-American and Hispanic students holding the same views. Based on earlier research, public school teachers (88%), the general public (73%) and public school parents (74%) share these sentiments, saying the removal of troublesome students will improve learning.

On the academic front, the basics tops the list of items public school students think are extremely important to learn before they finish high school, followed by good work habits (86%), honesty and tolerance of others (78%) and computers (75%). For white and Hispanic students no academic subject other than the basics is a priority; African- American students, however, give many academic subjects somewhat higher ratings. For example, on the issue of learning American history and American geography before the end of high school, only 25% of white public school students consider this extremely important. A higher percentage of Hispanic students (45%) share this view, versus the 59% of black students who believe it is of extreme importance. As was the case in earlier Public Agenda research with teachers, parents and the general public, classic works from writers such as Shakespeare and Plato, as well as modern American writers such as Steinbeck and Hemingway, are ranked at the bottom of students' lists.

Getting By also explores the attitudes of private school teens who are significantly more supportive of their schools and teachers than public school students. From challenging students to do their best, to knowing their subject matter, to treating students with respect, private school teachers consistently receive higher grades from private school teens than teachers in public school do from their students. But public school students are three times as likely as private school teens to say their classes are crowded and more than twice as likely to say their schools have too many drugs and too much violence. Additionally, public school students are less likely to say their parents can name their favorite teacher (56%) than private school teens (70%).

Students are issuing a distress signal, and it's time for us to stop the blame shifting from parents to teachers to administrators to the media and focus our energies on addressing their plea for order, structure and moral authority in their lives, added Wadsworth.

Getting By is based on a national telephone survey of over 1,300 high school students, completed in November. Of the total sample, 1,000 were randomly selected public high school students (margin of error plus or minus 3%), and the remainder were oversamples of black and Hispanic public high school students, private high school students, and public middle school students (grades 7 and 8). Additional oversamples included San Francisco Bay Area public high school students and Jefferson County, Kentucky public middle school students (grades 6 through 8).

On Teen Culture

  • Only 13% of public school teens, versus 43% of private school teens, say their classmates are very respectful of teachers.
  • Eighty-one percent of black, 79% of Hispanic, and 73% of white public school students say kids in their schools pay too much attention to what they are wearing and what they look like; 42% of private school students say the same about students in their school.
  • Sixty-eight percent of public school students, and 49% of private school teens, say cheating on tests and assignments is a serious problem where they go to school.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of public school teenagers say their friends look up to classmates who do well in school. This finding holds true across all racial and economic groups.

On Teachers and Teens

  • Thirty percent of public school students say most of their teachers care personally about them, versus 58% of students in private school.
  • Thirty-three percent of public school students say most of their teachers challenge them to do better; 51% of private school students feel this way.
  • Only 23% of public school teens say most teachers in their school teach mainly by lecturing, one of students' least favored teaching approaches.
  • Seventy-eight percent of public school students say a teacher who tries to make lessons fun and interesting would help them learn a lot more, but only 24% think most of their teachers do that now.
  • Forty-six percent of students in public school say most of their teachers know their subject well, compared to 63% of private school teens.
  • Eighty-one percent of public school teens say they have encountered teachers who were unpopular but turned out to be good teachers.

On Teen Motivation

  • Eighty-six percent of white, 84% of African-American, and 78% of Hispanic public school teens think schools should expect inner-city kids to learn as much and achieve the same standards as kids from middle-class backgrounds; 89% of private school teens agree.
  • Seventy-one percent of public school teens say schools should require after-school classes for students who get D's and F's in major subjects.
  • Fifty-four percent of public high school teens say more job internships would help them learn a lot more; 50% say closer scrutiny of transcripts by employers would help.
  • Eighty-five percent of teens in public school say they learn better in classes where most of the students are at a common skill level.
  • Fifty percent of public school teens, and 35% of private school teens, say too many of their classmates are allowed to be late and duck their work.

Getting By was made possible by grants from The Ashland Oil, BellSouth, Annie E. Casey, Edna McConnell Clark, George Gund, William and Flora Hewlett, W. K. Kellogg, John S. and James L. Knight, Pacific Bell and San Francisco Foundations, and The Business Roundtable and Harcourt Brace & Company.

Getting By is a follow-up to 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 studies explored the views of public school teachers, the general public, parents with children in public schools, and community and education leaders. Additional Public Agenda studies on education include Americans' Views on Standards: An Assessment by Public Agenda (1996), Attitudes Toward the St. Louis Public Schools (1996), Committed to Change: Missouri Citizens and Public Education (1996), The Basics: Parents Talk About Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and the Schools (1995), Professional Development for Teachers: The Public's View (1995), and The Broken Contract: Connecticut Citizens Look at Public Education (1994), among others. For information on how to obtain copies of Public Agenda's studies, 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.

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