Grading the Public Schools

Public, teachers focus on tougher discipline, 'three Rs,' and values

What public schools need today is more stress on basic subjects, the teaching of values, and much tougher discipline - and that includes getting rid of troublemakers who make it hard for others to learn.

That bottom-line assessment is shared by an unlikely duo: teachers and the general public. A wide gulf still separates the two groups on such issues as public-school quality and the need for higher performance standards. But on the fundamental points of the ''three Rs'' and classroom order, parents and teachers alike seem to be reading from the same text.

''The agreement on certain fundamental issues among teachers, parents, and the general public was striking,'' says Steve Farkas, research director of the nonprofit research group Public Agenda and an author of its new report, ''Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today.''

''The media and even other reports have made out as if these groups were at odds over things like teaching basics,'' Mr. Farkas says. ''But we found no fundamental gap on subjects like the academic agenda, the need for order, and the values question.''

Far from being impressed with trendy notions like early use of calculators in the classroom, the teachers strongly support learning math tables first, along with other basic subjects. Some 98 percent of the teachers (and 92 percent of the public) also said it was ''absolutely essential'' for schools to stress reading, writing, and math skills.

A long-running dispute has simmered between those who think the basics are essential and those who focus more heavily on self-esteem courses. But the study's findings tend to corroborate the view that teachers and most of the academic world ''are now coming around to supporting the basics,'' says Eva Bann, dean of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. ''Reading, writing, arithmetic, and now computers are what's needed.''

The high interest in a strong basic curriculum has also led to mutual agreement about the importance of teaching values.

''We have found that instead of being at odds over what should be taught, there is extraordinary agreement about a core of central values,'' says Deborah Wadsworth, executive vice president of Public Agenda. ''Parents, the general public, and teachers believe learning cannot take place unless there is order, discipline, and respect in the environment of the classroom. All believe that students who are disruptive need to have help elsewhere so that kids who want to learn can learn.''

Lynne Weisenbach, dean of the School of Education at the University of Indianapolis says that when she walks into a classroom, ''I frequently see things like honesty, trustworthiness, and other principal values listed on the walls, particularly in elementary schools.''

Professor Weisenbach says this is not surprising, given growing concern about the level of violence and disorder in the nation's schools and the increasing amount of time teachers spend dealing with troublemakers in their classrooms.

''The problem is getting worse,'' she says, making values of increasing importance. ''If a student gains a good sense of values, he or she is less likely to do something bad in class or outside.''

''It's becoming more and more difficult to establish civility or classroom demeanor,'' says Vicky Weiss, professor of English at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. ''All the other sophisticated learning we're teaching these teachers in college has no meaning until you decide: How are you going to conduct business here?''

One area where the public and teachers diverged was assessing overall local-school performance. ''We were surprised by the intensity of the differences in the way teachers and the public view it,'' Ms. Wadsworth says. ''When you get almost 47 percent of the public believing a high school diploma is no guarantee that a student has mastered the basics, and two-thirds of the community leaders you talk to believe that, and only 31 percent of teachers do - that's quite a discrepancy.''

Teachers, for their part, were critical of parents, most frequently citing the need for stronger parental involvement when asked to name the single most important thing public schools needed to help students learn. Eighty percent of teachers said parents do a worse job today than when they were in school.

The issue of money also highlighted a perception gap: While 80 percent of teachers say their own community's public schools are not getting enough money to do a good job, only 58 percent of the public shares this view.

But the report - and its finding of agreement on basic school issues - suggests a way to bridge differences. As Wadsworth puts it: ''We have now an extraordinary opportunity for the general public and the teachers of America to get together and prepare our children for what they need to know.''

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