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March 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 6

What Families Want

Although Americans of all backgrounds believe education is the key to the good life, Public Agenda research suggests that many don't think schools are delivering on the promise for black and Hispanic students.

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Do changing demographics in society mean that we should rethink U.S. public education? If so, what should schools do differently? Years of public opinion research conducted by Public Agenda suggests that in addressing these questions, education policymakers should not necessarily redesign education to suit changing demographics. Instead, we need to ensure once and for all that every child attends a school with strong academic programs, qualified and motivated teachers, and a respectful and nurturing environment.

Common Aspirations

Americans have always viewed education as the route to the good life, and changing demographics haven't altered that expectation. Studies show that students and parents from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds value education and look to schools as the key to preparing young people for their futures.
For example, in a Public Agenda survey titled Public Attitudes on Higher Education: A Trend Analysis, 1993 to 2003(Immerwahr, 2004), 87 percent of respondents say that a high school graduate should “go on to college rather than take any decent job after high school,” and 76 percent say that “getting a college education is more important than it was 10 years ago.” Minority respondents are even more likely than whites to believe higher education is a necessity. Among the general public, the majority say that there are many ways to succeed (61 percent), and the minority say that a college degree is necessary for success (37 percent). But among blacks and Hispanics, the reverse is true. The majority of blacks and Hispanics (53 percent of each) say a college education is necessary for success, whereas a smaller proportion say there are many ways to succeed without a college education (45 percent of blacks and 41 percent of Hispanics).
Regardless of race or ethnic background, young adults in the United States believe that attending college makes a significant difference in how they will fare in the world. As Johnson and Duffett report in Life After High School (2005), 9 in 10 young people of all backgrounds agree that it's easier to move up in a company when you have a college degree, and 88 percent say you will make more money with a college degree. Large majorities of black, Hispanic, Asian, and white young people say that they aspire to higher education as a way to earn society's respect and ensure career advancement and financial security. Approximately 8 in 10 young adults (77 percent of blacks, 81 percent of Hispanics, 85 percent of Asians, and 81 percent of whites) affirm that “people respect you more when they know you've graduated from college.”

Unequal Opportunities

Despite the general agreement that education holds the key to equal opportunity, incontrovertible evidence indicates that as a society, we're not delivering on the promise. The United States has made only a halfhearted attempt to provide equal education opportunities for all. More than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, stark differences exist between the education experiences of whites and those of blacks and Hispanics. Dropout rates at every stage of the education system are dismal for these two demographic groups. And only eight states can claim even moderate success over the past 15 years in boosting the percentage of poor or minority students who score at or above proficient in reading, math, or science (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2006).
Statistics, although troubling, only go so far. The voices of students, parents, and teachers, on the other hand, speak so poignantly and urgently that we can't ignore them.

Poor Marks on Standards

Public Agenda's Reality Check reports (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006a, 2006b) provide ample evidence that minority students and parents are more likely than white families to be dissatisfied with their local schools' standards and curriculum. Fifty percent of black students and 43 percent of Hispanic students say that low academic standards and expectations are a “serious problem,” compared with only 31 percent of white students. Similarly, black and Hispanic students are more likely to say it is a “very serious problem” that too many students get passed through the system without learning.
Like students, minority parents are more likely than white parents to be dissatisfied with school standards and curriculum. More than 40 percent of black and Hispanic parents doubt whether students leaving middle school have the basic reading and writing skills they need, compared with only 29 percent of white parents. Forty-four percent of black parents and 38 percent of Hispanic parents say that their schools have a serious problem with “kids not being taught enough math and science,” compared with only 27 percent of white parents.
Minority parents are also more concerned than their white counterparts about school funding and classroom overcrowding. Only 17 percent of white parents give local superintendents “fair” or “poor” marks for ensuring that the district has high standards and giving students the support to reach them; 39 percent of black and 24 percent of Hispanic parents rate their superintendents “fair” or “poor.” Similarly, 43 percent of black parents give low marks to superintendents on “working hard to make sure that lowincome and minority children do as well in school as youngsters from more affluent families,” compared with 26 percent of Hispanic and 20 percent of white parents.

Worse Marks on Classroom Atmosphere

If an adult were forced to work in an environment where disrespect, bad language, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse, and other misbehaviors were inflicted by a relative few, but tolerated by management, most of us would consider it a “hostile workplace.” We might wonder how anyone could learn in a place like this.
But substantial numbers of black and Hispanic students report such conditions in their schools. Asked to rate their schools on social dimensions—dropout rates, truancy, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse, and so on—black and Hispanic students are more likely than their white counterparts to report “very serious” problems in nearly every category. Fifty-seven percent of black students say that the statement “teachers spend more time trying to keep order in class than teaching” is a fair way to describe their school, compared with 47 percent of Hispanic students and only 41 percent of white students (Johnson et al., 2006a).
Black and Hispanic parents are twice as likely as white parents to say that school superintendents have not done a good job keeping schools safe and orderly. They are also twice as likely to report that fighting and weapons on school grounds are very serious problems in their schools. One-half of black and Hispanic parents say that not getting enough money to do the job is a serious problem for their local schools, compared with only one-third of white parents. Four in 10 black parents say they believe a teacher has unfairly punished their child, and more than a third say that only some or a few teachers at their child's school handle discipline issues fairly and quickly (Johnson et al., 2006a).
Hispanic parents tend to be particularly concerned about dropout rates and basic skills. Almost half of Hispanic parents say that local schools have a very serious problem with dropout rates, compared with 38 percent of black parents and only 18 percent of white parents. Hispanic parents are also more likely to report serious problems with drug and alcohol abuse in local schools (Johnson et al., 2006a).

Teachers Confirm Families' Concerns

Teachers, reporting on the school conditions around them, focus on many of the same problems that concern students and parents. The vast majority of teachers across the United States (79 percent in mainly minority schools and 83 percent in majority white schools) say that the lack of enough money to do a good job is a top problem in their schools. But in mainly minority schools, teachers express particular dissatisfaction with classroom discipline. They are significantly more likely than teachers in majority white schools to say that classes are crowded. Nearly one-third (31 percent) say that teacher morale is low, compared with about one-fifth (21 percent) in majority-white schools.
And although most teachers in mainly minority schools say that academic expectations are high at their schools, they also report many instances of students not learning even basic skills. Teachers in mainly minority schools are also significantly less likely than teachers in majority white schools to give administrators good ratings for selecting principals, getting money to the classroom, and keeping schools safe and orderly (Johnson et al., 2006b).

Ready, Set . . . I Can't Go

Even if minority students overcome the disparities they face in elementary and secondary schools, complete high school, and hold ambitious plans for the future, they typically face a harder path than many of their white peers. Minorities are much more likely to say that finances are a problem for qualified students. Fifty-nine percent of white young people say that “the vast majority of people who want to go to college and are qualified can find a way to pay for it,” compared with 46 percent of black and 45 percent of Hispanic young people. The majority of black and Hispanic young people say that “lack of money keeps many people who should be in college from going.” The perception that a good postsecondary education may be out of their financial reach surely must affect high school students' motivation to strive for academic accomplishment.
Money aside, minority students are less likely to believe that their high school education has prepared them to excel in college. When asked whether they believe they will have the skills they need to succeed in college by the time they graduate from high school, only 49 percent of black students and 56 percent of Hispanic students say yes, compared with 68 percent of white students (Johnson et al., 2006a). Although Hispanics, blacks, and whites are about equally likely to have taken the SAT in high school (64 percent, 67 percent, and 63 percent respectively), some evidence suggests that Hispanics are not as well prepared for the college admissions process. Young Hispanics are less likely than other groups to say that their high school counselors gave them advice about what courses to take (46 percent versus 53 percent of young adults overall; Johnson & Duffett, 2005).

From Aspirations to Action

The high school years can be tough for students of all backgrounds, but the voices of young people enumerate the particularly daunting challenges that black and Hispanic youth encounter. Of course, strong aspirations can overcome obstacles. Successful black and Hispanic young people are proving every day that determination and hard work can produce impressive results. But to keep our commitment to provide an excellent education for all students, we need to make changes. And listening to the students, parents, and educators who are closest to the problems is a crucial first step.
When it comes to ideas about possible improvements, surveys reveal a great deal of agreement across demographic groups—and a fair amount of agreement among students, parents, and educators, too. Parents of all ethnic backgrounds tend to support standards and testing as a means of improving the education system, and teachers and school administrators generally see the basic value of these practices. Public Agenda research indicates, however, a growing recognition that standards alone are not enough to fix the problems of public education. There is wide agreement among all the groups that the top priority should be adequate funding that produces smaller class sizes. There is also nearly unanimous support for paying teachers more to work in the schools with the most challenges (Johnson et al., 2006b).
Additional guidance for reform priorities comes from two key findings that are common among all students. Roughly similar numbers of students of all ethnicities admit that they could try a little harder in school (58 percent of black students, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 46 percent of whites), a finding that suggests that schools would do well to hold students to higher expectations. And roughly equal numbers of students from all groups say they have had a teacher who succeeded in getting them interested in a subject they usually hate (66 percent of blacks, 71 percent of Hispanics, and 72 percent of whites), a finding that points once again to the power of excellent, motivating teachers.
Should we focus our energies on redesigning schools to fit changing demographics? Or should we instead work hard to make sure the schools are built on solid foundations? The real imperative is to ensure that, finally, minority students get the same high-quality education as kids in mainly white and more affluent neighborhoods. That's the first lesson of Demographics 101.

Immerwahr, J. (2004). Public attitudes on higher education: A trend analysis, 1993 to 2003. New York: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., Arumi, A., & Ott, A. (2006a).Reality check 2006, issue no. 2: How black and Hispanic families rate their schools. New York: Education Insights and Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., Arumi, A., & Ott, A. (2006b).Reality check 2006, issue no. 3: Is support for standards and testing fading? New York: Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2005). Life after high school: Young people talk about their hopes and prospects. New York: Public Agenda.

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. (2006).How well are states educating our neediest children? Washington, DC: Author.

Deborah Wadsworth has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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