Monday, December 13, 2010

Parents to blame for school problems?

Parents deserve "a great deal" or "a lot" of the blame for problems facing our country's public schools, say 68% of the respondents to a Stanford University/AP poll. (See December 11. "blaming parents.") Only 35% of the 1001 respondents were parents, so maybe it was the non-parents doing all that blaming.

As for what the problems facing American public schools are, here are the percentage of respondents who considered the following problems "very" or "extremely" serious, listed in ascending order of grimness. First are a series of questions about resources: the availability of athletic facilities (20% serious or very serious), the condition of school buildings (25%), and outdated textbooks (38%). Overcrowding comes in at 44%. More serious are a cluster of questions about teaching. These include bad teachers (35%), the quality of the curriculum (37%), and placing emphasis on the wrong subjects (39%).

Mounting in seriousness, we have students not spending enough time in school (41%). This is the kind of question that really frustrates me. Did the respondents want longer school days, fewer dropouts, better attendance? The question doesn't say. Low expectations for student achievement clocks in at 49%, followed by low test scores (50%). 55% worry about problems recruiting and keeping the best teachers. But the biggest problems of all, according to public opinion, are fighting, violence, and gangs (56%) and lack of student discipline (59%).

I admit I was surprised by the public's sense of schools as riven by gangs ans violence, so I dug a little. The government tracks school crime and school safety. In 2007, the most recent year, there were 628,000 violent crimes (assault and more) in schools serving 54.8 million students. That translates to just over one violent for every hundred students. Of all the suicides and homicides that occur among school-aged youth, fewer than 1% occur at or around schools. On the other hand, 28% of kids reported being bullied, 25% of high school students reported being offered drugs, and 86% of schools reported at least one violent crime or theft.

So the public is worried about violent, undisciplined, and underperforming students. As for who's at fault, here, in ascending order, are the percentages of respondents who said the following groups deserve a great deal or a lot of the blame: teachers (35%), teachers' unions (45%), students themselves (46%), local school administrators (53%), federal education officials (59%), state education officials (65%), and parents (68%). Here teachers come out looking best and parents looking worst.

In a finding that is reproduced again and again in education polls, despite the grim list of problems, the majority of parents (76% in this case) rate their own child's school as excellent or good. Most respondents see the big problems of American education as residing in somebody else's schools, affecting somebody else's children, and caused in large part by somebody else's bad parenting (not to mention state and federal education officials).

What do I think about all this? I think the public, especially those without kids in the schools, respond to what they hear and see in the media. Stories of violence are sticky; they make an impression. Stories about low test scores are ubiquitous. Therefore, these are the two problems that rise to the top for the public. But, through a massive act of projection, we manage to see these problems as out there somewhere, not affecting our own kids and not requiring anything new of us as parents. We're doing a good job. It's those other parents, out there, who are letting us all down.

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