Poll Finds Disparate Views of State of Education


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.

Confirming the lax grading, 73% of students said most students get by doing the bare minimum of class work. Almost 40% said their teachers rarely give Fs, even if one is deserved. The poll quoted a Los Angeles student on this point: “Kids probably don’t get failed, they just get passed. Teachers give them a D or a C. They . . . just let them go.”


On the Right Path to Success?

Parents, teachers and students are generally upbeat about the quality of high school education, according to a new poll by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York-based research group. But employers and college professors expressed skepticism about the skills that today’s high school graduates bring to the workplace and college classrooms.

Percent who say a high school diploma is no guarantee that a student has learned the basics.

H.S. students: 22%

Teachers: 26%

Parents: 32%

Employers: 63%

Professors: 76%

Percent who say a high school diploma is no guarantee that a student has learned the basics.


Percent who say that recent high school graduates lack the skills to succeed.

Employers: 68%

Professors: 52%

Grammar and spelling

Ability to write clearly

Basic math skills

Motivated and conscientious

Ability to speak English well

Curious, interested in new things

Ability to use computers

Working with others effectively


Respectful and polite


Students With Attitudes

During the first week of classes each fall, 350,000 incoming college freshmen are asked provocative questions on everything from sex and drugs to making the academic honor roll. The survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute generates a half-inch-thick volume--the American Freshman--that has become the bible for educators tracking the shifting attitudes of U.S. college students. This week, UCLA released the findings of the 32nd annual survey, highlighting a continuing trend of disengagement. Each new wave of college students seems less interested in politics and school work than its predecessors--but is no less materially oriented and ambitious. Here is a sampling of views expressed by the Class of 2001:

Political orientation is far left:

All Institutions: 2.8

All 2-year Colleges: 3.5

All Black Colleges: 4.8

Public Universities: 2.3

Private Universities: 2.1


Political orientation is liberal:

All Institutions: 21.6

All 2-year Colleges: 18.7

All Black Colleges: 29.2

Public Universities: 24.4

Private Universities: 27.6


Political orientation is middle of the road:

All Institutions: 54.8

All 2-year Colleges: 60.3

All Black Colleges: 51.4

Public Universities: 51.1

Private Universities: 45.8


Political orientation is conservative:

All Institutions: 19.3

All 2-year Colleges: 15.9

All Black Colleges: 12.8

Public Universities: 20.9

Private Universities: 23.1


Political orientation is far right:

All Institutions: 1.5

All 2-year Colleges: 1.6

All Black Colleges: 1.9

Public Universities: 1.3

Private Universities: 1.4


The federal government is not doing enough to control environmental pollution:

All Institutions: 80.7

All 2-year Colleges: 80.2

All Black Colleges: 83.5

Public Universities: 80.8

Private Universities: 80.5


The federal government should raise taxes to reduce the deficit:

All Institutions: 22.1

All 2-year Colleges: 19.2

All Black Colleges: 17.4

Public Universities: 25.8

Private Universities: 27.3


There is too much concern in the courts for the rights of criminals:

All Institutions: 70.2

All 2-year Colleges: 68.9

All Black Colleges: 60.3

Public Universities: 71.3

Private Universities: 67.7


Capital punishment should be abolished:

All Institutions: 23.7

All 2-year Colleges: 22.5

All Black Colleges: 38.6

Public Universities: 23.6

Private Universities: 29.5


Sex is OK if people like each other:

All Institutions: 42.2

All 2-year Colleges: 47.5

All Black Colleges: 36.6

Public Universities: 41.5

Private Universities: 39.6


The activities of married women are best confined to the home and family:

All Institutions: 25.4

All 2-year Colleges: 30.4

All Black Colleges: 32.1

Public Universities: 21.7

Private Universities: 18.7


Marijuana should be legalized:

All Institutions: 35.2

All 2-year Colleges: 39.2

All Black Colleges: 36.7

Public Universities: 34.0

Private Universities: 33.9


It is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships:

All Institutions: 33.9

All 2-year Colleges: 39.1

All Black Colleges: 37.2

Public Universities: 28.2

Private Universities: 21.7


Employers should be allowed to require drug testing of employees or job applicants:

All Institutions: 78.4

All 2-year Colleges: 75.6

All Black Colleges: 83.4

Public Universities: 79.6

Private Universities: 77.4


Just because a man thinks that a woman has “led him on” does not entitle him to have sex with her:

All Institutions: 86.9

All 2-year Colleges: 82.1

All Black Colleges: 83.5

Public Universities: 90.5

Private Universities: 90.9


The federal government should do more to control the sale of handguns:

All Institutions: 81.3

All 2-year Colleges: 77.5

All Black Colleges: 89.1

Public Universities: 83.7

Private Universities: 86.2


A national health care plan is needed to cover everybody’s medical costs:

All Institutions: 72.4

All 2-year Colleges: 75.5

All Black Colleges: 82.9

Public Universities: 69.1

Private Universities: 66.9


Racial discrimination is no longer a problem:

All Institutions: 19.6

All 2-year Colleges: 23.3

All Black Colleges: 12.2

Public Universities: 17.8

Private Universities: 15.4


Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society:

All Institutions: 32.8

All 2-year Colleges: 39.1

All Black Colleges: 33.2

Public Universities: 29.2

Private Universities: 24.5


Wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now:

All Institutions: 63.4

All 2-year Colleges: 65.2

All Black Colleges: 63.9

Public Universities: 61.3

Private Universities: 56.0


Racist and sexist speech should be prohibited:

All Institutions: 63.9

All 2-year Colleges: 66.7

All Black Colleges: 61.8

Public Universities: 59.0

Private Universities: 58.3


People should not obey laws that violate their personal values:

All Institutions: 37.1

All 2-year Colleges: 39.5

All Black Colleges: 39.5

Public Universities: 34.7

Private Universities: 35.4


The use of affirmative action in the college admissions process should be abolished:

All Institutions: 50.0

All 2-year Colleges: 44.2

All Black Colleges: 28.8

Public Universities: 56.4

Private Universities: 60.4


Same-sex couples should have the same legal status as heterosexual couples:

All Institutions: 49.8

All 2-year Colleges: 47.9

All Black Colleges: 44.7

Public Universities: 53.7

Private Universities: 59.0

Interest in Activism

Desire to clean up the environment

1986: 15.9%

1992: 33.6%

1997: 19.4%

Desire to help promote racial understanding

1986: 27.2%

1992: 42.0%

1997: 31.8%

Desire to influence social values

1986: 32.5%

1992: 43.3%

1997: 37.6%

Percent Saying Abortion Should Be Legal: 53.5% in 1997

Percent Saying They Smoke Cigarettes: 16.1% in 1997

Source: UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute