Students Want to Be Held to High Standards

Published January 1, 2002

A recent poll of principals, teachers, and students reveals a major disconnect between the views of educators and the views of students about accountability and expectations.

While most principals and teachers think their schools set high academic standards, most students disagree. And while most minority students have high expectations for their own futures, few of their teachers and principals share that perspective.

In the reams of newsprint devoted to reporting on the education reform movement, there is predictable support for tough standards from state education officials and parents. There’s also equally unsurprising criticism of “teaching to the test” from the teacher unions and academics.

But there’s one group whose opinion rarely is solicited: the customers–the schoolchildren. A recent, comprehensive, nationwide survey helps correct that oversight.

Teachers, Principals Fail Students

The results from the survey validate President George W. Bush’s comment that many of America’s public schools reflect “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The results show that America’s teenagers want to be held to high standards. But their teachers and principals, they report, are not meeting their high expectations.

Titled “The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher 2001: Key Elements of Quality Schools,” the poll was conducted by Harris Interactive between March and May of last year for the Metropolitan Life Foundation and the Committee for Economic Development. Harris interviewed 1,273 K-12 teachers, 1,004 K-12 principals, and 2,049 middle and high school students.

Comparing the results to simultaneous interviews with teachers and principals, the poll concluded, “Students’, teachers’, and principals’ descriptions of their schools are often so different from each other that it seems each experiences a different reality.”

  • Only 38 percent of students–compared with 60 percent of teachers and 71 percent of principals–believe the academic standards at their school are “high.”
  • Only 23 percent of students–compared with 48 percent of teachers and 67 percent of principals–describe their classes as “challenging.”

Students the only Realists

This pattern–with principals as Candide-like optimists, students as hardened realists, and teachers somewhere in between–persisted throughout the poll.

For example, only 4 percent of principals–but 14 percent of teachers and 16 percent of students–agreed with the statement: “Many students in my school are promoted to the next grade without really being ready.”

A full 26 percent of D and F students–those most likely to be well-informed on this issue–agreed that many students were promoted without being ready.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of all students agreed with the statement: “I could have learned more at school this year.” Yet 75 percent of principals and 71 percent of teachers agreed with the statement, “Most of my students will achieve their full academic potential this school year.”

A full 55 percent of A students–again, those most likely to know–agreed they could have learned more.

“If my board of directors saw students feeling about me the way students in this survey seem to feel about their principals, they’d replace me,” said Irasema Salcido, principal of Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC, at an early October press conference announcing the poll results. “Kids want someone who will challenge them.”

Students were allowed to write in open-ended responses to the questions. Among the more telling were this one from an eighth grade boy: “School is not a bad place to be–if you are lucky to be in one of the great schools with such high standards.”

Add this one from a male high school junior: “. . . I can’t remember the last time I learned something new. . . . I just get sick of the busy work, and usually just end up throwing it aside and not doing it. I want to be LEARNING things.”

Lower Expectations for Minorities

What both the polltakers and the Council for Basic Education, in an accompanying press release, called the most “disturbing” finding of the survey was that “teachers and principals in heavily minority schools have lower expectations for their students.”

Some 69 percent of teens said they had high expectations for their future. There was no racial stratification in those numbers; Hispanics were equally likely as whites to be optimistic, and blacks more likely than average (81 percent) to look forward to the future.

But only 25 percent of students expressed strong agreement with the statement, “Teachers in my school have high expectations for all students.” By contrast, 39 percent of their teachers and 56 percent of their principals agreed with that statement.

At the press conference, high school teacher Jeremy Copeland of Brooklyn–an African-American himself–unwittingly demonstrated the survey’s findings when asked why he thought black teens had such a positive view of the future.

“They think they’re going to become basketball players or rap stars,” Copeland said with obvious cynicism.

Larry Parker is senior reporter for Teacher Choice at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. His e-mail address is [email protected].