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"Teachers Talk About Public Education Today"


What do U.S. teachers think about the state of American education? How do their views compare with the general public's perceptions? A new report offers insight.

Report Cover Image Restoring order in public schools is a top priority of the nation's public school teachers, according to a new Public Agenda study, Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today. Black and Hispanic teachers, whose views receive special attention in this report, and the general public agree. Both teachers and the public support similar solutions including school policies that focus on persistent troublemakers in the classroom. While the majority of teachers downplay the threat of violence in their schools, they go beyond the public in their approval of a proposal to ban students caught with weapons or drugs.

In addition to similar views concerning order and discipline, teachers and the public agree to a surprising degree on what should be taught in the classroom, including basic academic and computer skills. Teachers also share the public's skepticism over heterogeneous grouping and the early use of calculators by students, proposals strongly favored by reformers in many communities.

Teachers and the public part company, however, when rating the performance of their local public schools. Teachers feel public schools should receive high marks. They also believe, unlike the general public, that their local public schools outperform private schools in key areas such as providing students with better preparation for college and higher academic standards. Asked to compare public to private schools in 13 categories, teachers rate public school performance as better than or equal to private schools in 8 of the 13. The public, on the other hand, feels public schools outperform private in just 2 areas.

"It is not surprising that teachers and the public seem to assess the performance of public schools through very different lenses," said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's Executive Director. "Teachers talk about families in turmoil, schools and communities with inadequate resources, contentious school boards, and top-heavy education bureaucracies. In their view, they're doing a good job given tough circumstances."

Teachers also do not seem to share the sense of urgency the public and community leaders feel about the issue of higher standards. Only half of teachers think standards are too low in their local schools. Inadequate funding, overcrowded classrooms and disorder are far more pressing problems to teachers. While 65 percent of community leaders and 47 percent of the public believe "a high school diploma is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics," only 31 percent of teachers agree.

"Education reformers and policymakers who consider higher academic standards a centerpiece of their movement should not count on teachers to be a driving force," adds Wadsworth. "It might be that the academic energies of even the most motivated teachers are sapped by what they consider to be the stressful day-to-day demands of the classroom. From the teachers' perspective, order and civility, not higher standards, provide the infrastructure that good teaching builds on."

Beyond examining teachers' attitudes on how well public schools are doing, and their views on what children need to learn in school, Given the Circumstances explores their opinions on the "values wars" some communities face over issues such as sex and AIDS education. The study is based on a national telephone survey of 1,164 public school teachers completed in December. Of the total sample, 800 were randomly selected teachers from the fourth through twelfth grades (margin of error plus or minus 3.4 percent), and the remainder was an oversampling of black and Hispanic teachers. Findings from dozens of focus groups with public school teachers, and an additional national telephone survey of 237 teachers completed in May of 1995, are also included.


  • Eighty-seven percent of white, 67 percent of black, and 65 percent of Hispanic teachers say their schools do a good or excellent job.
  • "Involved parents" received the top response from teachers (31 percent) when asked to name the single most important thing public schools need to help students learn. Eighty percent of teachers say parents do a worse job today than when they were in school.
  • Only 28 percent of teachers would be "very concerned" if "international test scores showed American students were doing poorly," compared to 56 percent of the public and 63 percent of community leaders.
  • Eighty percent of teachers say their own community's public schools are not getting enough money to do a good job; 58 percent of the public share this view. Sixty-five percent of teachers and 50 percent of the public think classes are too crowded.
  • Sixty-six percent of teachers think schools are placing enough emphasis on the basics, but 60 percent of the public think they are not. Fifty-seven percent of teachers think students are taught enough math, science and computers, but 52 percent of the public thinks they are not.


  • Eighty-one percent of teachers say the worst-behaved students absorb the most attention in today's schools. Eighty-eight percent of teachers, and 73 percent of the public, think academic achievement would improve substantially if persistent troublemakers were removed from class.
  • Eighty-four percent of teachers, and 76 percent of the public, think "permanently removing kids caught with drugs or weapons" will improve academic achievement.
  • Eighty percent of teachers, and 73 percent of the public, would require students to remain on school grounds during lunch.
  • Sixty-nine percent of teachers, and 56 percent of the public, favor a ban on kissing and hugging on school property.
  • Only 13 percent of teachers, and 28 percent of the public, support allowing "educators to paddle or spank students."
  • Seventy-one percent of Hispanic teachers, 61 percent of black teachers, 47 percent of white teachers, and 72 percent of the public, say drugs and violence are a problem in their schools.


  • Ninety-eight percent of teachers, and 92 percent of the public, say it is "absolutely essential" for schools to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills.
  • Seventy-two percent of teachers, and 80 percent of the public, feel teaching computer skills and media technology are absolutely essential.
  • Seventy-three percent of teachers want students to memorize multiplication tables and do math by hand before using calculators. Eighty-six percent of the public shares this view.
  • Seventy-seven percent of black, 74 percent of Hispanic, and 83 percent of white teachers, support withholding high school diplomas until students "clearly demonstrate they can write and speak English well." Eighty-eight percent of the public agrees.
  • Only 14 percent of black, 17 percent of Hispanic, and 15 percent of white teachers, and 20 percent of the public, support tailoring curricular material to students' backgrounds, such as using street language to teach inner city children.
  • Of four factors that might determine career success, teachers place an excellent education a distant third, with only 21 percent saying it's the most important factor.
  • Fifty-three percent of teachers, and 38 percent of the public, worry about an "A" student with two or three friends, while 29 percent of teachers, and 45 percent of the public, worry about a "C" student with many friends.
  • Fifty-two percent of teachers, and 66 percent of the public, think highly educated people "often think they are better than others."


  • Sixty-five percent of black, 62 percent of Hispanic and 50 percent of white teachers, and 71 percent of the public, think values are more important to teach than academics.
  • Ninety-three percent of teachers, and 88 percent of the public, want schools to emphasize such habits as "being on time, responsible, and disciplined."
  • Eighty-five percent of black, 76 percent of Hispanic, and 80 percent of white teachers, and 71 percent of the public, say it would be inappropriate to invite a guest speaker who advocates black separatism.
  • Seventy-three percent of teachers, and 68 percent of the public, think the public schools should "help new immigrants absorb language and culture as quickly as possible, even if their native language and culture are neglected."
  • Seventy-three percent of white, 64 percent of black and 60 percent of Hispanic teachers, favor teaching that democracy is the best form of government.


To order a copy of Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today, send a check for $12.50 to Public Agenda, 6 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016 or call (212)686-6610. Click here to view one table from the report (Table 5: Proposals to Improve Academic Achievement).

Given the Circumstances was made possible by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The National PTA, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Philip Morris Companies Inc., and The George Gund, Rockefeller, William and Flora Hewett, US West, and General Mills Foundations. Public Agenda is solely responsible for developing the lines of inquiry, designing the research instruments, and analyzing and reporting the results.

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization working to help citizens better understand complex policy issues and to help the nation's leaders better understand the public's point of view. It was founded in 1975 by Daniel Yankelovich and Cyrus Vance.


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