by Kara Douma, M.P.A., Senior Consultant for Survey Research

This Advisor discusses what’s right and wrong with our schools, based on data from the 1996 Michigan Education Poll and a 1997 Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll.

Introduction

Both Gov. John Engler and President Bill Clinton have put education at the top of their public policy agendas. In Governor Engler’s 1997 State of the State address, nearly one-third of which was devoted to education, he said, “Nothing is more important to the future of families than the quality of our children’s education. Education is the ladder from poverty to prosperity. Education makes equal opportunity possible. Education is the key to the American dream. And it is the lack of education, or poor quality education, that too often makes welfare and prisons necessary.”

In President Clinton’s recent speech on education to a joint session of the Michigan Legislature, he echoed public opinion (and fears) when he said, “Our schools are still turning out millions of young people who simply are not equipped for the new world of work. That is why our number one priority must be to make our system of public education the best in the world.”

The public shares this strong interest in education. Twenty-six percent (a plurality) of all respondents in a March 1997 Wall Street Journal (WSJ)/NBC News poll cited it as the highest priority for the federal government.1 This is not surprising in a time of economic prosperity and peace. With their basic needs well taken care of, people often look to the future. And when either the perception or the reality is that America’s schools are falling short, the focus on the future centers on their children’s and grandchildren’s education. Further evidence of widespread concern is that almost every demographic group cited education as the most important issue. The exceptions are people who earn less than $20,000 a year and/or have a high school education or less. These less financially stable subgroups are more concerned about the future of Social Security and Medicare, core issues of personal security.

Most findings from the WSJ/NBC News poll mirror those of the 1996 Michigan Education Poll (MEP) conducted by Public Sector Consultants (PSC) other local school surveys conducted by PSC and Instructional Support Services (ISS). For example, all surveys reveal an intense interest in technology and the use of computers in the classroom, recognition of the necessity of parent involvement in education, concern about the lack of student discipline, and dissatisfaction with student employability skills.

While the issues identified—what is wrong and what is right with our schools—are the same nationally as statewide, there is one surprising difference in the survey results: While grades for overall quality of school performance have steadily declined nationally (as measured by the percentage of respondents giving schools a D or an F), the grades for overall Michigan went up in 1996 compared to 1994 and, in fact, were at the second all-time-highest level in MEP history.

While it is important to remember that surveys are a snapshot of public opinion (that is, they measure public opinion only at the point in time they are administered), and the WSJ/NBC News survey was conducted six months after the latest MEP, we believe that the trend data provided by over a decade of MEPs and other national surveys merit a discussion of how Michigan compares to other states and the country as a whole. This paper compares and contrasts the surveys’ results.

Background

From 1982 to 1996 (except in 1988, 1993, and 1995) the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) annually has measured statewide public opinion about K–12 education. The methodology for these 800-resident MEPs has remained the same, creating an excellent longitudinal database that educators and state policy makers may use to track attitudes over time. The 1996 MEP is the twelfth such survey and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent within a 95 percent confidence interval.

Prior to 1991, the MDE conducted the poll, but budget reductions and the department’s wish to increase the involvement of business in education policy making led the MDE to Public Sector Consultants, which offered to find corporate sponsors and conduct the survey. The 1996 MEP underwriters were the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Business Leaders for Education Excellence, Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Education Association.

During the past two years, PSC/ISS also conducted twelve surveys in eight demographically diverse school districts, using of standardized and a few customized questions. Although, statistically, data from any one school district cannot be used to generalize about all others across the state, consistent findings among diverse districts are worth noting.

Findings

This section compares the findings from the 1996 MEP and the WSJ/NBC News survey. References also are made to surveys conducted by PSC/ISS in individual school districts throughout the state.

Parent Involvement

People believe that involved parents are a key ingredient for successful learning. When asked to choose the most effective activity local school boards could undertake to improve education, a plurality (23 percent) of MEP respondents chose “work to increase parental involvement in education and the classroom.” The other options were (1) work to increase public financial support for the schools, (2) implement the state’s suggested core curriculum and create school improvement plans, (3) concentrate on student performance standards, and (4) give parents more choice in the types of courses offered. (Exhibit 1 shows the response percentages for these options.) In addition, 80 percent of MEP respondents said they either strongly or somewhat agree that parents should be expected to volunteer in their child’s school or classroom.

The WSJ/NBC News poll had similar results, with more than 80 percent of respondents citing lack of parental involvement as a very important reason schools do not work. In comparison, low academic standards and poor teaching were cited by 66 percent and 60 percent of all respondents, respectively. In addition, 91 percent said they think parents should be solely responsible for ensuring that students do their homework.

Technology

The public views technology as vitally important to a good education. Seventy-eight percent of MEP respondents agree (53 percent strongly agree) that the increased use of computers in the classroom will improve the schools. More specifically, 88 percent think it is important (67 percent say very important and 21 percent say somewhat important) that every child in every grade level has access to a computer at school (see Exhibit 2).

In all the PSC/ISS surveys, the biggest group of respondents (usually upwards of 75 percent) identified technology as a high priority for improving education. This holds true in both suburban and rural districts. In addition, technology was considered a high priority for additional funding. In fact, two-thirds of all MEP respondents stated that more should be spent to upgrade technology, with half of the two-thirds supporting additional taxes and the other half favoring shifting existing education funds to technology from other programs.

The WSJ/NBC News poll found similar results nationwide. When read a list of possible changes to the education process and asked to indicate if they believe the change would or would not improve education, 70 percent of all respondents agreed that improving computer equipment and training would improve education. Only recruit and retain better teachers ranked higher on a list of 18 possible changes (which included increasing challenges, lengthening the school day, increasing homework, and spending more money on education, to name a few).

Yet, while respondents think that technology is a key to improving education, they are fairly satisfied with current school performance in this area. The MEP showed that 64 percent of all respondents are either very or somewhat satisfied with the extent to which computers are used in the instruction of students in their local schools; the WSJ/NBC News poll showed that 43 percent of respondents rated the schools as excellent or very good for technology and equipment in the schools.

Employability Skill

The public gives schools lower grades for nonacademic aspects of education than for such traditional academic subjects as reading, science, and mathematics. When asked to assess education outcomes, MEP respondents awarded the lowest grades for school performance in teaching students employability skills, such as good work habits and problem-solving skills, with 35 percent giving the schools an A or B and 21 percent a D or failing grade (see Exhibit 3). This held true in the PSC/ISS local district surveys as well.

Respondents nationwide are less optimistic. While 27 percent of WSJ/NBC News poll respondents rated the schools as excellent or very good at preparing students for jobs in the 21st century, 32 percent rated the schools as only fair or poor (see Exhibit 4).

Discipline

Lack of discipline is one of the biggest concerns that people have about schools. Although the MEP did not address discipline, in every local education survey PSC/ISS has conducted, the absence of discipline was identified as the aspect of the education process with which parents and the public are least satisfied.

In the WSJ/NBC News poll, respondents cited lack of discipline in children more than any other reason as why the education system does not work: 92 percent said it was an important reason (86 percent said very important).

Overall Grades

In Michigan the percentage of respondents giving public schools an A or B grade for overall quality increased from 42 percent in 1994 to 54 percent in 1996. (See Exhibit 5). When results are compared over time, however, the 1994 grades stand out as an exception to the generally favorable marks awarded Michigan schools. In fact, grades have been climbing in Michigan since the early 1980s, and 1992 was the high-water mark, with 56 percent of all MEP respondents giving their local public schools an A or B. The relatively low grades in 1994—the lowest since the inception of the MEP in 1982, when 42 percent also gave their local schools an A or B—may have been due to the increased media attention and heated debate in the legislature about school reform during fall 1993. In 1996, when the full effect of charter schools and proposal A first was being realized, grades rebounded to pre-1994 levels.

While the percentage of A and B grades has remained somewhat flat nationally during the last decade, the percentage of below-average (D and F) grades has risen from 13 percent in 1987 to 23 percent in the 1997 WSJ/NBC News poll.2 This has not been the case in Michigan: In all years of the MEP, even in 1994 when the percentage of A and B grades fell dramatically, the percentage of respondents giving their local schools a D or F has remained constant at about 15 percent.

Conclusion

Education again is at the forefront of the collective public consciousness. While the public’s grades for the quality of Michigan schools have returned to within historical trends since the 1994 dip in confidence, there is still room for improvement. Nationally, grades for quality have declined over the last decade. The public largely blames this decline on a lack of discipline, not necessarily a lack of academic standards or poor instruction. In addition, people are least satisfied with how well schools teach students employability skills and prepare them for jobs in the next century.

The solutions identified as most effective in both state and national surveys tightly correspond to the problems that respondents identified as most important. That is, it is logical that parent involvement and the use of technology in instruction are seen as key components to improving the schools. Parent involvement can be expected to correct poor behavior, and technology and computers are ever more important in the workplace, no matter what the industry.

Increasing the use of technology may be the easier of the two solutions to implement. President Clinton and Vice President Gore are working to get every classroom and library hooked up to the Internet by the year 2000, and Michigan has received an $8.6 million federal grant for technology in the classroom. At the state level, Governor Engler developed the Michigan Information Network and worked with the MDE to develop a five-year technology plan for Michigan schools.

In regard to technology, money can do much to fix the problem. Not so with parent involvement, something that means different things to different people. With increased demands from outside the home and cultural norms that undervalue parenting, there is no quick fix. Finding appropriate roles for parent involvement in the schools, educating parents about effective parenting and the physical and emotional needs of their children, improving communication between parents and teachers, and increasing employers’ sensitivity to the special needs of working parents are just a few of the complex issues that must be addressed.

While the problems facing our youth, their families, and the education system are considerable, one cannot but feel hopeful now that these issues are finally at the forefront of public policy debate. Awareness of the importance of a good education and proper parenting is growing, and proposals to improve in these areas abound. We only can hope that in the ongoing debates, politics and partisanship will take a back seat to the needs of children and that rational, effective reforms and practices will result. The future depends on it.

1On March 14, 1997, the WSJ and NBC News released the results of a national education poll conducted during the week of March 10 by Peter Hart and Robert Teeter. The survey was based on nationwide telephone interviews of 2,010 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percent within a 95 percent confidence interval.

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Copyright © 1997

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