Stumbling Towards Reform: Disagreement, Shortfalls and a Few Victories Mark Second Public Agenda Survey on School Standards


New York, NY -- A new Public Agenda survey finds that most teachers disapprove of tying financial incentives for teachers to student improvement or replacing the staffs at failing schools, two proposals that garner acceptance from at least twice as many parents and employers surveyed.

The finding is one of several contained in Public Agenda's second annual Reality Check survey published this month in Quality Counts, an annual report on public education published by Education Week. The survey measures the progress of the school reform movement in gaining ground in the classroom, and contrasts the divergent viewpoints of public school teachers, students, parents, employers and college professors.

The lack of consensus over just how well, or poorly, the nation's public schools rate saw little change during the past year. As in the 1998 survey, teachers are more likely to hold local public schools in high regard (92 percent) than are college professors (27 percent) or employers (33 percent). Most employers and professors still rate the academic skills of high school graduates low: eight out of every 10 employers called the graduates' grammar and spelling poor or fair; 83 percent of professors gave the same ratings to graduates' ability to write clearly.

The biggest change since last year's survey came in employers voicing increased dissatisfaction with certain non-academic traits of high school graduates. Three-quarters (77 percent) gave poor or fair ratings to graduates for being organized and on time, up 19 points from last year; 54 percent said the same for graduates being respectful and polite, up 22 points. But it is not clear from this research, according to Executive Director of Public Agenda Deborah Wadsworth, whether a genuine decline in graduates' social skills or other factors, including a record low unemployment rate, have influenced employers' perceptions.

No common ground

Accountability measures, such as financial incentives for teachers and reconstituting schools, have long been seen as suspect by many teachers. Some educators have said elsewhere that these proposals either inflate the importance and reliability of standardized tests, which would be used to measure student improvement, or increase the role of a superintendent's or school board's subjective opinion. In this survey, 60 percent of employers and 53 percent of parents favor tying financial incentives for teachers and principals to student improvement. But only 22 percent of teachers said this was a good idea.

The wide gap between the attitudes of teachers and other stakeholders suggests just how far reformers and educators have to go before finding common ground, Wadsworth said.

The survey also suggests, Wadsworth said, that reformers' efforts to raise expectations seem to be having a hard time making it through the classroom door. While almost all teachers (97 percent) report that their districts or states have some guidelines about what children should learn, it is another question whether or not the guidelines are having a significant impact. Only 49 percent of teachers say they expect more from students because of the guidelines. Almost two out of every five teachers (39 percent) say that schools automatically promote students when reaching a maximum age. On the other hand, more teachers (68 percent) are reporting that enrollment in Advanced Placement or honors classes is on the rise compared to last year (50 percent).

Everybody is a player

Yet school improvement does not take place only in the classroom. Reality Check responses show that other figures in the education equation can also be influential. Most high schoolers (84 percent) say they would be more likely to work harder if they knew that their potential employers would look at their transcripts.

The overwhelming majority of employers say they do not look at transcripts, which may stem from their general distrust of grades, Wadsworth said. The result is that students lack the motivation that scrutiny of their grades could provide.

While one tenet of school reform is making parents critical consumers of public education, the survey results raise questions about how informed the typical parent really is. Only a quarter of those with children in high school know the local school's dropout rate and 31 percent know the number of graduates who go on to college. Many parents have a good idea how their children measure up to their classmates (52 percent), but most also have no sense how their kids stack up to peers across the country (58 percent).

The research for Reality Check was conducted by Director of Research Steve Farkas, Assistant Director of Research Ann Duffett, and Research Associate Joanna McHugh, with Director of Programs Jean Johnson. Farkas and Johnson are senior vice presidents at Public Agenda. The survey was funded with grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the GE Fund.

The report is based on more than 2,600 interviews with public school teachers, parents of public school students, children in public middle or high schools, college professors who taught freshmen or sophomores in the last two years and employers who hire for entry-level positions. The margin of error is plus or minus 6 percentage points for employers and college professors and 4 percent for other subgroups.

Excerpts from Reality Check are available on Public Agenda Online ( Complete questionnaire results may be ordered from Public Agenda for $42.50. See Ed Week's Web site ( for Quality Counts or call 301/280-3100 to order copies.

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 former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich.

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