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Poll Finds Disparate Views of State of Education

Standards: In a survey to gauge the effectiveness of reforms, parents and teachers give public schools good grades, but employers and college professors say students are graduating with inadequate skills.

January 14, 1998|ELAINE WOO | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Are higher standards, tougher tests and other recent education reforms producing more capable graduates?

It depends on whom you ask. Parents and teachers, according to a new national poll, give public schools good or excellent grades and say high school students are graduating with the skills they need to succeed.

Much more skeptical, however, are employers and college professors, who offer a dimmer view of the skills today's graduates bring to the workplace and college classrooms.

These are among the findings of a poll by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York-based research group, in the first in a series of public opinion surveys--or "reality checks"--on the impact of the national movement to raise public school standards.

"It's a mixed picture," Public Agenda vice president Jean Johnson said of the poll, which canvassed 700 kindergarten-to-high school teachers, 700 parents, 700 middle and high school students and 500 employers and college professors in September and October.

"There are some reports from the study that people are trying to raise standards, and that is heartening. On the other hand, there are also some signs the job is not done, especially in the evidence presented by the employers and college professors," Johnson said.

The poll, which was commissioned by the national publication Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trusts, asked all the respondents whether they believed that a high school diploma today guarantees that a student has mastered basic skills. The differences were stark, with 63% of employers and 76% of professors who teach college freshmen and sophomores saying that the diploma is no guarantee that a graduate can read, write or do basic math.

"They can't spell . . . and there are other major flaws in their memos. The tenses are not consistent and all kinds of things are wrong. It all goes back to the schools," complained one New York employer interviewed by the researchers.

But 62% of parents, 73% of teachers and 77% of students said that a diploma does guarantee mastery of the basics. Solid majorities of parents, teachers and students also rated their local schools good or excellent.

Among professors and employers, however, more than two-thirds rated schools fair or poor.

Johnson said the gulf in opinion could be interpreted two ways. One view is that schools' efforts to stiffen requirements and refocus the curriculum on basic skills simply are too new to have rubbed off on recent graduates. "We may be seeing a lag time. The movement to raise standards and expectations is really only a few years old. So those attitudes among professors and employers may improve in three or four years," Johnson said.

But other poll results may suggest a more pessimistic reading, she said. Parents in particular may be rendering their generally rosy judgments out of ignorance. Asked, for instance, what they know about how their child's skills stack up against those of other children, only 7% said they knew much about how their offspring compared to those in other countries. Only 15% said they knew a lot about how their children compared to others across the United States. And only 23% said they had much information to compare their kids to others in their state.

"There is a question of how much parents know about what kids can do--and how much they know about what employers and professors in higher education are expecting," Johnson said.

The employers and professors graded the high school graduates they encounter most harshly on basic skills. Only 17% of professors and 35% of employers said these graduates have excellent or good basic math ability. Only 18% of professors and 27% of employers said recent graduates could write clearly.

They gave graduates high ratings, however, on so-called "new basic skills," such as the ability to work effectively with others and to use computers.

Overall, the poll found evidence that the push for school standards is producing some good. Half of the high school teachers polled said that more students are taking Advanced Placement and honors courses now than a few years ago.

But the drive to toughen up schools does not seem to have affected other worrisome policies and attitudes. Automatic or social promotion--advancing students to the next grade level because of age rather than academic merit--is still widely followed, the poll shows.

More than four in 10 teachers said their schools automatically promote students when they reach the maximum age for their grade level. And nearly half said that teachers at their schools are more likely to grade students according to how much progress they show over time, not on what they should know at their age.

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