Disrespectful Students More of a Concern than Testing

Published June 1, 2003

While some educators and administrators have raised concerns about the testing and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, there’s no nostalgia among teachers or others for a return to the pre-standards policies of the past, according to a new summary report from Public Agenda.

According to the report, 92 percent of students say they take tests seriously, and only a few (5 percent) feel overwhelmed by pressure.

By contrast, disrespectful student behavior elicits much higher levels of concern among high school teachers (82 percent), students (70 percent), and parents (56 percent). More than four in 10 teachers (43 percent) say that in their schools, teachers spend less time teaching than they do trying to keep order in the classroom.

These and other findings are summarized in “Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools,” a chart-filled review of Americans’ views on schools conducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research and policy organization. The report, funded by Washington Mutual, draws on more than 25 major opinion studies of the key stakeholders in education: parents, students, teachers, school leaders, employers, and college professors.

“The standards movement has taken hold in American schools and continues to enjoy broad support. But there are some troublesome fault lines,” said Public Agenda’s president, Deborah Wadsworth. “Teachers in particular seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. They believe in higher standards but often feel they can’t count on students to make the effort or parents and administrators to back them up. Meanwhile, employers and professors still have major complaints about youngsters’ writing and basic math skills.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A copy of the Public Agenda report, “Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need to Know about Public Opinion and Public Schools,” is available online at http://www.publicagenda.org/aboutpa/pdf/where_we_are_now_combined.pdf. The first 36 pages of the report provide the 12 findings, each with multiple charts, while the remaining 80 pages provide details of the supporting survey data.


Note: In the report, each finding is accompanied by about 10 different charts. Source for all charts is Public Agenda.

FINDING 1 The public–including parents, teachers, and students–believes setting standards and enforcing them promotes learning. Social promotion, they say, harms kids.

Only 16 percent of Americans believe most students achieve their full education potential; the vast majority (81 percent) are convinced most youngsters achieve only a small part of that potential. Student surveys support that view, with 71 percent saying they put out only the bare minimum of effort needed to get by in school.


FINDING 2 Standards and promotion policies have changed in recent years, and attitudes about local schools have improved. Even so, many students still move ahead without acquiring needed skills.

Despite efforts to raise standards, nearly half of teachers say many youngsters in their schools get diplomas even though they don’t have the needed skills.


FINDING 3 The vast majority of parents and teachers say standardized tests are useful, and few students are overly anxious about them. But respondents also think tests can be misused, and many say there’s too much emphasis on them.


FINDING 4 While teachers support high academic standards, they have qualms about some aspects of testing.


FINDING 5 Teachers are troubled by lack of parental support and poor student behavior. Teachers also say their views are generally ignored by decision makers.


FINDING 6 Americans say all students need the basics, and parents want their own children prepared for college. For most, a college diploma is as indispensable as a high school diploma used to be.


FINDING 7 There is a dramatic gap between the way employers and college professors rate high school graduates and the way parents and teachers view them.


FINDING 8 The vast majority of employers and professors continue to have serious doubts about public school graduates’ basic skills–especially when it comes to writing.


FINDING 9 Teachers say lack of parental involvement is a serious problem. According to teachers and parents, parental involvement should focus on what goes on at home rather than on school management issues.


FINDING 10 Teachers, parents, and students continue to voice concern about the rough-edged, uncivil atmosphere in many high schools. Few see high schools as places of respect or civility.


FINDING 11 Superintendents and principals say their biggest problems are politics and bureaucracy. Most want more autonomy over their own schools.


FINDING 12 Holding schools and educators directly accountable for student achievement is still uncommon. Teachers and principals have doubts about it, while parents and the public tend to support it.