What Does the Public Want? Essential Schooling, Perhaps

by Peter Huidekoper, the Gates Foundation

What do parents want of their children’s schools? What does the public believe about our schools and how well they are doing? Is there a “disconnect,” as recent reports imply, between the answers to those questions and the reform efforts of the Coalition of Essential Schools? Or does that impression arise largely from poor communication?

First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools, a national report released in fall 1994 by the Public Agenda Foundation, offers a rich account of what the public believes is taking place-and should be taking place-in our schools. “School “experts” Found Out of Sync with Public,” reads the headline over Education Week‘s summary of the study.

The Gates Foundation in Colorado (the principal private supporter of Re:Learning in the state) also recently undertook a survey, of Coloradans’ attitudes toward public education. It was part of our effort known as Agenda 21, which attempts to close the gap between the public, policy makers, and educators around a number of important educational issues.

A close look at the results from both studies reveals many shared concerns between the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools and what the public wants of America’s schools. Here are just a few examples.

For a large majority of Americans, too many public schools are not meeting their most elemental goal: ensuring that the nation’s children master some basic, but essential skills-the ability to read and write English and to do simple arithmetic by hand, along with a “common knowledge understanding of science, history, and geography.

When Theodore Sizer and his colleagues studied American high schools in the early 1980s, they found “shopping mall high schools” with a loss of focus, and students not learning at a high level. The first two principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools seem consistent with what most parents want: 1. The school should focus on helping young people develop the habit of using their minds well [and maintain its] central intellectual purpose; 2. The school’s academic goal should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge.

The Agenda 21 poll found that, of the majority (65 percent) of Coloradans who felt public education was on the wrong track, the first reason people gave for feeling this way was that “the basics are not taught” No doubt some disagree about what are “basics” and what are “essential skills,” but don’t the first two Coalition principles generally respond to what the public expects from public schools?

“It is not uncommon for some in the educational reform movement to refer to “The basics” with disdain, First Things First states, “and numerous observers have interpreted the public’s continuing focus on basics as evidence of lack of support for more rigorous and challenging course work. From the public’s point of view, however, making sure public school children complete their education with a firm command of the basics is not a trivial or inconsequential goal. It is the essential foundation on which children build their future. . .

To many Americans, “education experts” seem to give surprisingly short shrift to basics-skipping over them to discuss issues such as the importance of “critical thinking skills,” the need to learn teamwork, and other higher-order skills that are at the top of reformers’ agenda. But when people talk about “the basics,” they are not necessarily suggesting that children can’t do more, or that higher levels of achievement are not desirable. What most people seem to mean is “First things first” Indeed, the vast majority of Americans (96 percent) support having “tougher and more challenging courses” in the basics. (p. 14)

As further support of this point, note the response of Coloradans to the Agenda 21 poll item that read, “If schools would just go back to teaching the basics-like reading, writing, and arithmetic-it would solve a lot of today’s problems in public education” A majority (57 percent) disagreed with that statement. The analysts’ conclusion: “The public wants young people to know the basics, but not only the basics. Or put more formally, knowing the basics is seen as a necessary condition of being educated, but not a sufficient one.”

In short, the public very much wants clarity about expectations, about what are the “essential skills and areas of knowledge” According to First Things First: “Like leaders, people believe that academic standards should be raised, that schools and teachers should be clear and specific about what they expect children to learn” (p. 15)

There is great agreement, as well, on the issue of the size of the school and of classes. According to the study done by First Things First, there is substantial concern about large classes. About half of Americans, and 63 percent of African-Americans, say classes are too crowded in their local schools. Respondents in focus groups often propose smaller classes as an effective way to make the schools more orderly and thus improve learning. This study, and other Public Agenda education projects, suggest that people place a very high premium on the teacher’s role in a small-scale, structured environment. People believe students succeed best when a teacher knows them individually, knows how to encourage and challenge them, checks carefully on both their academic work and their behavior, and responds quickly and decisively if they fall behind.

This corresponds nicely with many of the conclusions Ted Sizer and his colleagues draw in Horace’s Compromise and The Shopping Mall High School. The fourth Common Principle speaks to the issue of class size and teachers know- ing their students well. Schools that work hard to get those numbers down and personalize the learning experience for all students will be responding to a parent’s longing for safe schools where a few adults know their students well.

Such areas of common ground exist. If we listen hard and speak clearly, we might go a long way toward overcoming the gaps between the public and education reform. Better communication might reveal that parents and teachers, the public and the school reformers, are not really so “out of sync” after all.