Measuring Up

Published on .

Americans' attitudes on the issue of public education standards.

Like some other major institutions, America's public schools haven't recovered from a nosedive in public confidence since the 1970s. In 1973, the Gallup organization found 58 percent of U.S. adults had “a great deal� or “a lot� of confidence in public education. By 1999, that figure had dwindled to 36 percent.

Yet schools in local communities get a higher rating than the U.S. public school system as a whole: In an August 2000 Gallup poll, 78 percent of parents said that they were at least “somewhat satisfied� with their child's education. Even locally, however, ratings falter on specifics. For example, in a March 1997 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 30 percent of the public gave local schools high marks for maintaining a safe and orderly school environment.

Employers and college professors who work with recent high school graduates are much more critical of public education than parents or the general public. In Public Agenda's Reality Check tracking poll, conducted in November and December 2000, 8 in 10 employers and professors ranked graduates as “fair� or “poor� in their ability to write clearly, and about 6 in 10 gave similar ratings on math skills.

But the same poll found intriguing signs of improving perceptions among parents of public school students. In 1998, 42 percent of parents said the private schools in their community had higher standards than public schools, compared with 26 percent who said public schools were better. In 2000, parents were evenly split: 35 percent said private schools had higher standards; 35 percent said public schools did; 8 percent said the two were equally matched; and 23 percent didn't know.

Founded by the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, Public Agenda is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit, public opinion and policy research organization based in New York. Visit its Web site at

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