Poll Analysis: What Parents, Children and Teachers Think About California's Public Education System

The issue of education covers a lot of ground. One can focus on school facilities; are there enough books to go around? Are the facilities adequate and safe for children and their teachers? One can look at the public school curriculum, the quality of teachers, and the hot-button issues of standardized testing and bilingual education. Does the system need more money, or to use existing money more wisely? In each case, parents, their children, and their children's teachers must bring their own unique point of view to bear.

In order to shed some light in this area, The Times Poll surveyed 1091 California public school teachers November 13-16, 1997. Between November 18th and December 12, 1997, the Times Poll interviewed 2,804 California adults, including 1,281 parents in addition to 545 of their 12 to 17 year old children. "Parents" were defined, for the purposes of this survey, as adults having at least half custody of at least one child between the ages of 5 and 17 who was currently in school. In many cases, similar or identical questions were asked of respondents in each of the surveys, allowing analysis of questions across the three groups and their sub-populations.

Teachers generally approve of the public school system which employs them and their answers reflect this attitude. Parents are concerned about the education their children receive, and look at the schools from two points of view -- as taxpayers that fund a system that was often perceived to be inadequate, and as consumers who, if they are able, must choose whether to place their children in public or private school. Children are in the trenches, studying from the textbooks, sitting in the classrooms, looking toward the future from the vantage of a front-row seat in what nearly everyone agrees is a public school system in need of reform.

Parents give the public school system low marks overall, but teachers and children grade it higher.

There was a wide divergence in viewpoints between teachers and parents of school-age children on the quality of the public school system. Parents regarded the national and state level school system quite negatively and were split over the quality of their local schools, while teachers gave fairly enthusiastic ratings to all levels of the system.

When asked to rate the nation's public schools, only a quarter of the parents in the survey responded "excellent" or "good." Nearly the same proportion (28%) gave one of these two highest ratings to California's public schools. In stark contrast, a majority of public school teachers in the survey gave a strong thumbs up to the public schools -- 64% gave one of these two highest ratings to the nation's schools, and 61% rated California's schools "excellent" or "good."

Both groups tended to view their own familiar local public schools with much higher regard than either the more abstract state or national system. Parents were split 49% to 48% over whether to rate their local public schools excellent/good or fair/poor, including only 9% who gave an "excellent" rating. One third of teachers in the survey, on the other hand, gave the highest rating to the school system they teach in every day. An impressive four out of five teachers gave their local schools one of the two highest ratings, while 19% rated them "fair" or "poor."

When children between ages of 12 and 17 were asked to rate the education they've received, they generally were in agreement with their teachers that it has been pretty good. Eighty-one percent of the younger middle-school children gave their education one of the two highest ratings, and 72% of high-school age children agreed. Overall, 76% of the 12- to 17-year-olds in the survey gave one of the two highest ratings to their education, and 24% rated their education as "fair" or "poor."

Teachers are given the most credit for what is good about California's schools; state government is blamed for its flaws. Parents give themselves credit, but teachers disagree.

Parents and teachers who rated California's schools as "excellent" or "good" tended to give credit for its positive condition to the teachers. A 58% majority of teachers and a 37% plurality of parents who rated schools excellent or good named teachers when asked to choose from a selection of possible school benefactors.

Similar proportions of teachers and parents gave credit to the state government or school administrators although these categories were among parents' top mentions. State government was mentioned by 13% of parents and 8% of teachers while school administrators received credit from 11% of parents and 7% of teachers.

Interestingly, more than one out of five parents felt that they -- the parents -- should be given credit for the good quality of the state's schools. Teachers don't agree -- only 5% thought parents were the main contributors to the quality of the state's school system.

When it came to assigning blame for the low quality of California's schools, the survey found that 21% of parents and nearly the same proportion (23%) of teachers who rated California's schools "fair" or "poor" named the state government as the culprit. Another 6% of teachers and 8% of parents blamed Wilson for the school system's woes. School administrators were fingered for blame by 11% of teachers and even more (16%) parents. Twelve percent of each group said there was not one scapegoat, that blame could be laid at everyone's door. One in five teachers said that the parents of children who attend the state's public schools could do more to improve the situation, and 14% of the parents themselves agreed. Virtually no one (5% of parents and 2% of teachers) blamed the teachers.

Overcrowding, budget cuts are considered most important problem facing local schools by parents and teachers. Children say it is violence and drugs.

In this series of questions, children were asked what they felt was the most important problem facing their own school, teachers were asked about the problems facing the school in which they teach, and parents were asked about the problems facing their local public schools. Two answers were allowed.

When asked to name the most important problems facing their local public schools, parents and teachers named similar concerns. Twenty-two percent of parents mentioned overcrowded classrooms, while 18% cited a more general concern over budget cuts. Similarly, nearly one out of every four teachers interviewed named budget cuts as the most important problem. Overcrowded classrooms was another top concern among teachers, mentioned by 16%, while 11% said that children who are not fluent in English pose the biggest problem in their local school.

When single mention answers are combined into broader categories, the difference in opinion between parents and teachers becomes apparent. More than a third (35%) of teachers mentioned some type of administrative problem (includes their top single pick: "budget cuts") as one of the most important problems and 31% of teachers cited parental non-involvement in school and homework. Parental focus, not surprisingly, was on the education of their children, with nearly a third (31%) mentioning classroom concerns such as overcrowding, lack of instruction in the basics and the problems resulting from a diversity of cultures and languages in the classroom.

Teenagers were less concerned with the overcrowding or budget issues that worry the adults than with everyday problems that may confront them -- violence and drugs in their schools. Twenty percent of middle-schoolers mentioned violence and 12% mentioned drugs, only 6% said gangs, while 16% said there were no problems on their campus. Seventeen percent of the older high-school students interviewed named drugs as the top problem, (possibly having pinpointed one of the main causes of campus violence,) 10% said gangs, 9% cited violence, 9% mentioned large class size. Ten percent of all high school students said there are no problems on their campus.

It is interesting to note that while nearly one of every three students (32%) point to gangs, drugs or violence on campus as the biggest problems, nine out of ten said they felt safe on campus, including half who said they felt "very safe." This was true for boys and girls, and among all ages and ethnic groups, and even among those students who named violence, gangs, or drugs as the most important problem on campus.

The majority of parents who see a change over the last decade in public schools think it was a change for the worse, while their counterpart teachers view it as a change for the better.

When parents and teachers were asked if the quality of public school education in California has gotten better or worse over the last ten years, about one quarter of each group (23% of parents, and 25% of teachers) felt that little has changed. However, there was wide disparity among the other three quarters of the population -- those parents and teachers who felt that the quality has changed -- over whether the change has been for better or worse. Sixty-six percent of parents who think the quality has changed said that the quality is worse while the same proportion -- 66% -- of teachers think the quality of education in California has improved.

There was general agreement between parents and teachers on the issue of teacher quality. A sizeable majority of both groups (61% of parents and 58% of teachers) felt that the quality of new teachers is the same or better than it was ten years ago while 28% of teachers felt that the quality of the new teacher pool has declined, and essentially the same proportion (29%) of parents agreed.

When the respondents who said that they believe teachers are less qualified now than they were ten years ago were asked to explain where they placed the blame, responses varied among the subgroups. (Note: two responses were accepted to this question.) Among parents, one of every four (24%) cited inadequacies in college training programs as one of the top reasons they felt the people going into the profession were less qualified. Nineteen percent of parents cited the presence of too many teachers working with children under the emergency credential program, while 12% of non parents blamed them. Twelve percent of parents cited the inadequacy of the credentialing programs in colleges.

Sixteen percent of parents said teachers who don't care about their profession were to blame for the decline in quality, and nearly a quarter (23%) of non-parents did as well. Eight percent of parents and 12% of non-parents responded by saying that the quality of the teacher pool has been lowered because the best people are not attracted to the teaching profession.

Teachers, when asked to explain their belief that the quality of their profession has declined, cited training issues and the emergency credential programs. A sizeable minority (40%) of fully-credentialed teachers and one third of those teachers in the survey who are currently working under an emergency credential agreed that there are too many inexperienced emergency credential teachers in the system.

Inadequate training programs are a big issue with teachers. Twenty-seven percent of all teachers cited the poor quality of college training programs and 24% mentioned the inadequacy of the credentialing programs as the causes of the lower quality of teachers entering the profession today.

When asked how they would rate the quality of the teachers in California's public schools now, 70% of teachers in the survey gave themselves and their colleagues an "above average" rating. Parents were much less complimentary, only 28% rated teachers so positively. A majority (55%) of parents gave teachers an "average" grade, while 13% rated teachers in California's schools as below average. Just over one quarter (26%) of teachers gave themselves an average rating, and only 1% gave themselves and their peers a below average rating.

Teachers split over whether more money or wiser management is needed; parents want wiser management.

While a shrinking education budget was clearly a concern among many teachers (see Most Important Problem section, above,) they are split 46% to 48% on the issue of whether better results will come from "using the money we spend now more wisely" or "spending more money to improve" California's public school system. Parents are less conflicted; nearly three out of five felt that better money management, not more money is the answer.

Parents and other adults think private schools do a better job educating children and would like a school vouchers program, but a majority of teachers disagree.

A majority (63%) of parents agreed when asked if they thought that children who attend private schools generally get a better education than those in the public schools. Adults who are not parents had an even stronger opinion about the better quality of private school education -- 71% agreed with the statement, and fully half agreed strongly. Thirty percent of parents and 23% of non-parents disagreed strongly or somewhat.

Public school teachers, not surprisingly, had a different opinion on the subject. While 30% agreed that children in private schools generally get a better education than the children in public schools, nearly two in five strongly disagreed with that statement, and a full 68% disagreed strongly or somewhat.

Parents and public school teachers again parted company over the issue of issuing school vouchers. A solid majority (62%) of public school teachers strongly opposed school vouchers and nearly three-fourths opposed the idea of implementing such a program strongly or somewhat. Twenty-four percent of teachers favored the program. Parents, on the other hand, generally liked the idea. A plurality (42%) favored the program strongly and a solid majority of 64% favored vouchers strongly or somewhat. There was a core of opposition among parents, however, 18% strongly opposed a voucher system, and another 11% opposed the idea somewhat.

Teachers give the curricula high marks, school facilities low ones. Parents are less generous with praise of teachers and sanguine about facilities.

Asked about the condition of California's public school facilities, nearly three in five teachers, possibly drawing on their experience in the classrooms, rated the condition of school facilities as "below average", and only 8% felt that conditions are better than average. Parents, on the other hand, while not enthusiastic, were less concerned -- 39% gave facilities a "below average" rating -- and a plurality (41%) rated the state's public school facilities as "average".

Parents and teachers diverge particularly on the subject of whether the public schools are preparing students for jobs in the twenty-first century. Nearly one in four public school teachers felt that the schools are doing an above average job of preparing students, compared with a fairly meager 16% of parents. Nearly three in four teachers felt that the job the schools do was average or better. A plurality (40%) of parents, however, felt that the schools do a below average job preparing their children, with nearly the same proportion (37%) saying it was average.

Teachers also gave higher rating to the public school curriculum than did parents. Nearly half of all teachers gave the curriculum -- the basis for the subjects they teach in the state's classrooms -- an above average rating, while only 18% of parents were as optimistic. Forty-two percent of teachers gave the curriculum an average rating and only 9% rated the curriculum as below average.

Parents and teachers say that parents are responsible for their children's academic achievements, while children look to their own work habits.

A plurality of parents (46%), non-parents (38%) and teachers (43%) felt that parental involvement in their children's schoolwork was the best explanation of why some students do better in school than others. An additional 13% of parents, 21% of non-parents, and nearly a quarter (24%) of teachers thought the stability of a child's home life was the best explanation. Students' own work habits received very low mention among all of the adult categories, somewhat surprisingly, only 6% of teachers, 10% of parents and 11% of non-parents felt kids who work harder will do better in school.

Children, however, saw things differently. A majority (58%) of middle school students and nearly half (48%) of high-schoolers surveyed thought the main reason for difference in school performance is that some children work harder than others. This may point to a difference between the messages of personal responsibility that parents and other adults typically transmit to children ("You must work harder to get good grades and get into college," for example), and the point of view that parents must be responsible for creating an environment in which their children can succeed.

Quite a few of the younger children in the survey are believers in natural ability -- 18% of the younger middle-school kids said that natural ability is the main explanation for doing well in school, the second highest mention. Nearly one in five high-school age children cited parental involvement in homework as the best explanation, the second highest mention among that age group.

Very few parents or teachers (6% and 4% respectively) pointed to a child's natural ability as the best explanation, and virtually no parents or teachers or children (2%, less than 1/2%, and 1% respectively) felt that preferential treatment is the explanation for variable performance. Very few respondents of any subgroup credited the influence of better teachers with creating higher achieving students (5% of parents, 2% of teachers, and 3% of children.)

Parents are enthusiastic about standardized testing and a majority of teachers agree. Some strong opposition among teachers was found. Kids say they would work harder.

Parents were enthusiastic about standardized testing. A majority of parents (54%) would strongly approve of implementing standardized testing that would determine advancement at every grade level, and nearly four out of every five parents (78%) approved at least somewhat. A sizeable majority (65%) of teachers approved of standardized testing at least somewhat, with 37% voicing strong approval. But three out of ten disapproved, with 18% of teachers strongly disapproving of the idea of testing.

When children were asked if they would work harder if they had to pass standardized tests before advancing and/or graduating, a vast majority (81% of high schoolers and 88% of middle schoolers) said that they would. Seventeen percent of high schoolers claim that tests would not make them work harder. This could be teenage bravado, or it might indicate that these high school children felt that they are already working hard enough to pass such a test, a supposition supported by noting that most of this group give themselves "A" or "B" grades for their overall school work.

Automatic promotion is a problem in the public schools, say parents and teachers. One out of three teachers claim that up to 15% of students in their classroom should have been held back.

Parents and teachers alike recognized allowing children to move ahead a grade even when they have not successfully completed the year's curriculum to be a problem in the public schools. Eighty-five percent of parents and three quarters of all teachers agreed that "too many students get passed on to the next grade when they should be held back." About a third (34%) of teachers in the survey said more than 15% of their current students should have been held back in the previous grade because they have not mastered last year's curriculum. Shockingly, only 16% of the teachers said that no students in their classroom should have been held back last year.

Teachers have the burden of weighing the negative effects of forcing a child to repeat a grade against the requirement that children master the year's curricula before advancing. Older children that have been held back present a possible discipline problem in a classroom, and there may be no obvious positive effect from "flunking" children who are not motivated, or not able to master the curriculum for whatever reason. On the other hand, there is general agreement that allowing a child to go on to the next grade unprepared is undesirable. Some teachers told us they don't have much choice -- nearly a third (32%) of the teachers in the survey said it would be at least somewhat difficult to hold a child back, based on their own experience with school district policies.

No consensus emerges on "full inclusion" of children with disabilities. Few parents or teachers approve of children using calculators to do basic arithmetic in classrooms.

Parents were evenly split (47% approve, 47% disapprove) about whether to include children with mental or physical disabilities in classrooms with others, although 30% strongly disapproved of the idea. A majority of teachers (62%) in the survey disapprove of placing students with disabilities into classrooms with students who do not have disabilities while over one third (34%) approved of the idea.

Few people in either survey approved of young children using calculators while learning arithmetic. A full 9 out of every 10 parents agreed that "students at a young age should be taught the fundamentals of math in school, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing without the aid of calculators." Nearly the same proportion -- 88% -- of teachers agreed.

Only 37% of high-schoolers report being assigned homework that takes more than one hour to complete. Less than one in three parents of high-schoolers who do an hour or less of homework a night felt it was too little.

The length of time it takes for children to do homework was an area where parent perceptions and children's reality mostly coincide. Parents and their children responded in strikingly similar proportions when asked how much time they or their children spend on homework each night.

Sixty-seven percent of both middle school students and parents of children of that age reported that the student spends about an hour or less on homework every night. Thirty percent of these younger teenagers said that their homework takes two or more hours to complete.

The more surprising finding was that only 37% of high school-age children are assigned homework that takes more than an hour to complete, while over half responded that their homework was completed in about an hour or less.

Parents of high schoolers responded to this question in similar proportions, supporting their children's report. Twenty-eight percent of parents whose high schoolers do one hour or less of homework a night felt the amount of homework assigned was inadequate while another 25% reported that the amount was just right, and 4% said it was too much. Among parents of high schoolers who do more than an hour a night, 29% said they felt it was the right amount, 8% felt it was too little, and 2% said it was too much.

Parents of younger teenagers were somewhat more sanguine, with nearly two-thirds (64%) saying that their child's homework load was just right, 1 in 5 saying too little homework was assigned and 15% saying that their child's homework load was too great.

When it comes to the amount of time spent by parents in helping their children with homework, parents and children parted company. Parents said they spend a greater amount of time checking or helping their children with their homework than their children reported.

Eighty-three percent of parents said that they usually or always had time to work with their child on homework, with 15% saying they rarely or never had time to help. Two-thirds (66%) of middle school kids said that their parents usually or always had time to check or help with homework, but nearly twice as many kids as parents (27% and 15% respectively) said that parents rarely or never had time.

Most students were satisfied with their school's academic standards. When asked if their schoolwork and tests were too difficult, just right or too easy, 78% of the 12- to 17-year-olds in the survey responded that their schoolwork was just right. Only 12% of these students felt their academic requirements were too hard, and 9% said too easy.

A smaller majority (61%) of their parents agreed with their children's assessment, but nearly a third (30%) responded that academic requirements placed on their children are too easy. Only 8% felt that their children's schoolwork was too hard.

A slim majority of parents and three out of five teachers feel that all students are treated equally in public schools. Kids perceive no difference in treatment.

Sixteen percent of parents and 20% of teachers named whites as the group treated preferentially over other students, 9% of parents and 6% of teachers cited Latinos, while 14% of parents and 6% of teachers weren't sure if one group was treated better than another. Virtually no one named blacks or Asians as recipients of preferential treatment.

Asian parents were the most likely at 61% to perceive racial equality in the classrooms, while black parents were the most likely to perceive favoritism toward whites (23%) and Latinos (13%), with only one in ten saying they weren't sure. Thirteen percent of white parents said white children receive preferential treatment, 10% named Latinos and 15% said they didn't know.

With the optimism of the young, four out of every five public school children (82%) perceived an equality of treatment among all racial and ethnic groups in their own schools. Eight percent of kids named whites and 4% named Latinos as the group treated best.

When the parents who responded that they believed one group gets preferential treatment (or weren't sure) were asked if any groups are treated worse than others, unsurprisingly, more than one out of every four parents named blacks (11%) or Latinos (15%) as the group receiving discriminatory treatment. One out of three teachers (35%) who felt that some students receive discriminatory treatment agreed with that assessment.

Just over half (53%) of black parents said their children do not receive enough attention from their teachers. This contrasts with the majorities of white, Latino and Asian parents who felt that their child receives enough attention from their teachers. Parents who felt their children are being slighted were twice as likely to give public school teachers in general below average ratings than their more satisfied counterparts.

Teenagers overall were content with the attention they received, 76% of middle school students and 68% of high schoolers said that they got enough personal attention from their teachers. One out of three parents (34%) and 27% of all kids said they did not get enough attention from their teachers. (Note that there were not enough children in the survey to break them out by race. If their parents are any indication, the response to this question might possibly vary among racial groups.)

Kids find classroom disruption and drug use on campus to be serious problems, but not overcrowding. Parents are not clued-in.

Fifty-eight percent of middle school students and nearly the same number of high school students reported their classroom was disrupted more than three times a week by students acting up or causing trouble. This includes a sizable number of students, close to two in five, who said their classrooms were upset every day.

Whatever their kids said, a majority of parents (58%) didn't feel disruption and acting up was a serious problem in their child's classroom. Nearly a quarter (24%) said disruptive students were a somewhat serious problem, and only 16% reported thinking this is a very serious problem.

More high school students felt that drug use on campus was a serious problem than did their parents. Forty-two percent of high-schoolers felt it was a serious problem vs. 52% who said not serious. Thirty-four percent of parents considered drugs a serious problem but three out of five (61%) reported feeling that drugs on campus were not a serious concern.

Real differences of opinion arose between children and their parents when asked about classroom overcrowding. A 58% majority of middle school parents felt overcrowding was a serious problem while 64% of the children of that age disagreed. This was most likely because parents recognize the ramifications of over-crowded classrooms, while adaptable children may not be as concerned about the issue or be as clear about the impact on their education. Older children were more cognizant of the problem; nearly two-thirds (73%) of high school parents considered classroom overcrowding a serious problem, and a smaller 56% majority of high schoolers agreed with their parent's assessment.

Concern over non-English speakers in the classrooms was higher among parents than among their children. Nearly three in four (73%) middle and two in three (65%) high schoolers didn't consider "too many kids who do not speak English fluently" to be a serious problem. A smaller majority of parents (59%) also did not consider this to be a problem.

Majorities of parents (60%) and students (58%) didn't consider out of date textbooks to be a problem in public school classrooms, although strong minorities (36% and 42% respectively) disagreed. Similar proportions of parents and students felt that technology and equipment are out of date.

How the Polls Were Conducted


The Times Poll contacted 1,091 teachers in California by telephone November 13-16, 1997. A random sample of teachers was proportionally drawn from the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) membership lists. Together, the two unions represent approximately 95% of California public school teachers. The margin of sampling error for all teachers is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher.

Adults, Parents & Children:

The Times Poll contacted 2,804 adults, including 1,281 parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17 living at home, by telephone Nov. 18 through Dec. 12, 1997. Five hundred forty-five (545) children between the ages of 12 and 17 were also interviewed. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error for all adults is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher.

To look at results of parents by their racial and ethnic group, the Times oversampled black parents and hired Interviewing Services of America to interview Asian parents in their own language (Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese). Asian respondents were chosen from a listed Asian surname sample. Interviews with non-Asian respondents were conducted in English and Spanish.

Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.