New York City–What does it say about the prospects for improving public education when Washington officials and local school heads are operating with very different assumptions about what schools need? Or when the assessments of teachers and superintendents on how many kids are passing through the system without learning the basics are diametrically opposed?

New surveys from Public Agenda show major disconnects between the priorities of national policy-makers versus those of local school leaders on issues like teacher quality, standards and the need to ramp up science and math coursework. In “Reality Check 2006: Issue No. 4: The Insiders” (the fourth report issued this year in the Reality Check 2006 series), Public Agenda found that even when they see the same problems, the two groups seem to strive for different solutions.

Yes It Is, No It’s Not

While 60% of principals say they are “very satisfied” with the teachers in their school and most superintendents (56%) believe the quality of new teachers is improving, federal officials enforcing No Child Left Behind said in Summer 2006 that not a single state in the nation has yet met its benchmarks for insuring more qualified teachers. And while just more than half of the nation’s superintendents consider local schools to be “excellent” and relatively few (23%) say low standards are a serious problem where they work, the DOE says only 10 states have testing systems that meet its standards.

Ironically, healthy majorities of superintendents (64%) and principals (67%) say one of the best ways to help them be better school leaders would be to reduce red tape and bureaucracy associated with school mandates like No Child Left Behind.

School leaders’ upbeat views of the schools also significantly differ from those of another key constituency: teachers in classrooms. School superintendents are substantially less likely than teachers to believe that too many students pass through the system without learning. While the majority of teachers (62%) say this is a serious problem in local schools, just 27% of superintendents think so. In another question in the survey, less than half of superintendents (46%) consider it essential to involve teachers more directly in setting school policy, although principals (65%) were more inclined to do so.

Is Math & Science a Problem? Would Merit Pay or Alternative Certification Help?

Despite a vigorous campaign by business leaders calling for more math and science education, the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative, continuing disappointing scores for American students on international math tests and a much discussed shortage of qualified math and science teachers, 66 percent of principals and 59 percent of superintendents say math and science education is not a serious problem or not a problem at all in their district. About one-third of principals and 40% of superintendents say it is a “somewhat” or “very” serious problem in their district.

And while many reformers have called for new mechanisms for improving teacher quality such as merit pay and alternative certification, only small percentages of principals and superintendents voice much interest in these ideas. To them, improving professional development opportunities and eliminating teacher tenure are much higher priorities. Only 4% of superintendents say relying more heavily on alternative certification programs would be a “very effective” means of improving teacher quality and only 20% say tying teacher rewards and sanctions to their students’ performance would do the trick. Many more say eliminating teacher tenure (43%) and increasing professional development opportunities (57%) would be “very effective.”

“With such vastly different sets of perceptions, you really have to wonder whether these people are working at cross purposes” Jean Johnson, Executive Director of Public Agenda’s Education Insights division and an author of the report said. “Federal officials see widespread problems; local school officials say the situation is pretty good. Business leaders say reforming math and science education is urgent; local school officials put it fairly far down the list. It’s probably natural for principals and superintendents to be upbeat about their institutions and employees, but still, I think the positive, almost buoyant outlook captured here may come as a surprise to a lot of school reformers and critics.”

Changing Self-Perceptions

The survey does suggest that local schools leaders are taking on new challenges. At one time, school administrators mainly managed the budget, insured that schools obeyed state and federal education regulations, worked to keep the local school board happy and, of course, were expected to be the loudest cheerleaders at school sporting events. Now, they are expected to be academic leaders and change agents who should be held accountable for increasing student learning overall and especially for improving academic achievement among minority and at-risk students. Reality Check shows school leaders embracing their more academic role.

The vast majority say the most essential aspects of their jobs are: ensuring that teachers use effective teaching methods (92% of principals; 87% of superintendents); recruiting the best teachers to their schools (91% of principals; 90% of superintendents); offering sound professional development (89% of principals; 91% of superintendents); and knowing how to use student data to improve teaching (84% of principals; 90% of superintendents).

Principals and Superintendents are not simply accepting the status quo, and have a change agenda of their own. School leaders place getting more funding for schools at the very top of their list. They also have their sights set on other targets like making it easier to remove problem teachers even if they have tenure and reducing federal bureaucracy and red tape.

Much Less Enthusiasm for Teachers in Poor, Minority Districts

There are significant differences in the judgments of school leaders in poor, minority districts versus those in affluent white areas. While more than 6 in 10 superintendents in affluent districts are “very satisfied” with their teachers, just 31% of superintendents in poorer districts say this. Still, even school leaders in poor, minority districts say that schools today are better than when they went to school.

About “Reality Check 2006”

“Reality Check 2006” is a set of public opinion tracking surveys on important issues in public education. From 1998 through 2002, Public Agenda conducted an annual survey of parents, teachers, students, employers and college professors covering standards, testing and accountability. In 2005 and 2006, Public Agenda revised and updated these surveys to cover a broader range of issues, including high school reform, school leadership, teacher preparation and quality, school funding and other issues. The tracking survey will be repeated periodically as a service of Public Agenda’s Education Insights initiative.

Funding for this edition of “Reality Check” was provided by the The Wallace Foundation. The GE Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation provide additional support for the Reality Check series.


The findings in “Reality Check 2006: The Insiders” are based on telephone interviews with a national random sample of 254 school district superintendents and 252 school principals, 721 public school teachers and 1,379 parents of children now in public school. Interviews with principals, superintendents and teachers were conducted between November 19, 2005 – March 7, 2006 and interviews with parents were conducted between October 30 – December 18, 2005. The margin of error for principals and superintendents is plus or minus 6 percentage points; the margin of error for the sample of teachers is plus or minus 4 percentage points; and the margin of error for the sample of parents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. It is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups. The survey was preceded by two focus groups each with parents and teachers. Selected survey results can be found at

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inform leaders about the public’s views and to educate citizens about government policy.

Visit Public Agenda Online– Public Agenda Online has been named one of Time Magazine Online’s 50 Coolest Websites. It is a Library Journal Best Reference Source and is a USAToday, MSNBC and recommended site. Public Agenda Online is the go-to source for unbiased facts, figures and analysis on issues ranging from education to terrorism to abortion to illegal drugs.


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