Looking at the Schools
Public Agenda Asks African American and White Parents
about Their Aspirations and Their Fears
By Steve Farkas and Jean JohnsonDoes a chasm separate African-American and white parents when they talk about what they want from the public schools? That's not the finding of the latest Public Agenda report, entitled Time To Move On. The report, on which the following article is based, reveals some divisions, but it also finds that African American and white parents are in solid agreement on what constitutes a good K–12 education and on the steps schools must take to provide it.
Most Americans seem to believe in the concept of equal education for every child, regardless of race or ethnicity. Surveys tell us that only a handful question the goals of the civil rights movement, and only fringe elements say they would like to return to the days of segregated schools and separate lunch counters. Most Americans also say they believe that the dream envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. has yet to be fully achieved.
When we move from the theoretical to the practical, however, the apparent consensus dissolves. Policies designed to promote integration and improve public education for minority youngsters often breed bitter controversy. As a nation, we seem to agree on what should be, but not on how we can get there. Indeed, some observers believe that the nation is now in "pause" mode when it comes to issues of school integration and equal educational opportunity.
Against this backdrop, Public Agenda and the Public Education Network (PEN) joined together to take a fresh look at how parents—black and white—see this often vexing complex of issues. The result, Time To Move On: African American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools, expresses the aspirations and concerns of African-American and white parents, who want to secure a good education for their children in today's schools. It reports the results of in-depth telephone surveys of eight hundred African-American and eight hundred white parents, as well as findings from focus groups and individual interviews with parents and public education professionals.
Why didn't we also include Hispanic and Asian parents in this study? Partly because of limited funding and the high cost of research comparing the views of multiple subgroups of the general population. But this limitation also reflects Public Agenda's decision that if the study is to be helpful, it must focus sharply on very specific questions about race.
What follows is a summary of the key findings from Time To Move On.
The order in which we present these findings is perhaps unusual: The perspective of African-American parents comes first, followed by that of white parents, and we conclude with areas of common ground. But we hope this order will allow readers to absorb each group's thinking in context.
As researchers, we attempted to capture the views we heard as accurately and honestly as possible. We hope that in so doing, we can launch a renewed discussion of these difficult issues—one less encumbered by the weight of miscues and faulty assumptions. In the coming months, we will use this research as the context for community discussions on these issues to be sponsored by PEN and its network of Local Education Funds.
The Message from Black Parents: Academics First and Foremost
For African-American parents, the most important goal for public schools—the prize they seek with single-minded resolve—is academic achievement for their children. These parents believe in integration and want to pursue it, but their overriding concern is getting a solid education for their kids. Many spoke about jarring experiences with racism over the years, but de-spite these experiences, their focus is resolutely on the here and now. They want to move beyond the past and prepare their children for the future.
- By an 8-to-1 margin, African-American parents say raising academic standards and achievement in the nation's schools is a higher priority than achieving more diversity and integration.
- In their own children's schools, by an overwhelming 82 percent to 8 percent, black parents want the schools to make raising academic standards and achievement the foremost priority.
- While 41 percent of black parents agree that kids get a better education in a racially integrated school, 51 percent say school integration makes little difference, and 5 percent say it makes for a worse education.
- Sixty-three percent of African-American parents say the statement, "Too much is made of the differences between blacks and whites and not enough of what they have in common" comes very close to how they feel.
- Only 41 percent of black and 34 percent of white parents say it is excellent or good to take black kids out of failing schools and send them to schools that are successful but mostly white.
The Current Political Agenda: Time-Honored or Timeworn?
African-American parents are firmly committed to promoting diversity in the schools, but they express serious doubts about some of the most frequently debated policies. As they see it, approaches such as affirmative action in school hiring are double-edged swords: They accomplish some goals, but they can have negative consequences and can distract schools from their main task. In fact, black parents are decisive in opting for quality, regardless of race, in hiring teachers and school superintendents. Given the heated controversies surrounding standardized tests, one might also expect black parents to distrust them. However, most accept standardized tests as valid measures of student achievement, and most say that community discussions about education might be improved by less emphasis on race.
- Ninety-seven percent of black and white parents agree that "our country is very diverse, and kids need to learn to get along with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds."
- Seventy-five percent of African-American parents and 59 percent of white parents believe it is absolutely essential for schools to teach about the contributions blacks and other minorities have made to American history.
- Three-quarters of African-American (73 percent) and white (77 percent) parents say, "Too often, the schools work so hard to achieve integration that they end up neglecting their most important goal—teaching kids."
- Three-quarters of African-American parents say race should not be a factor when choosing a teacher or superintendent for a predominantly black school district.
- But sixty-eight percent of black parents express concern that because of cultural differences, white teachers are not likely to understand how to deal with African-American students. Nearly seven in ten also think teachers and principals have lower expectations for black students due to racial stereotypes.
- Forty-four percent of African-American parents say standardized tests measure "real differences in educational achievement," while another 18 percent say whites tend to do better because black students have low expectations of themselves. Only 28 percent think "the tests are culturally biased against black students." Nearly eight in ten black parents want differences in black and white achievement test scores publicized, since this may help to set reforms in motion to solve the problem.
- Seven in 10 black parents say good discussions about schools "should be about what's good for students—there's no need to bring up race."
Black Student Achievement: An Educational Crisis
African-American parents' laser-like focus on academic achievement reflects a deep anxiety about how their children fare in the nation's schools. They believe that far too many black children are not learning enough, and far too many of the schools they attend are unacceptably deficient. As one parent put it: "It's not just psychological, it's a fact. The mostly white schools have more resources, strong parents, computers. They're able to put money into those schools, and parent interest is there. They can't hire just any teacher." African-American parents believe that the problem of inadequate schools for their children is at a crisis point. White parents also believe African-American youngsters attend poorer schools and are less likely to do well academically. They see the problem as limited to poor, urban areas, however, and they do not call the situation a crisis.
- The majority of black (56 percent) and white (54 percent) parents think less than half of black students are in good schools with good teachers. By contrast, 74 percent of black and 63 percent of white parents say more than half of white students are in good schools with good teachers. While only one in five says most white students are doing poorly in school, almost half say most blacks are doing poorly.
- Six in ten African-American parents do not think underachievement among black students is confined to inner cities, whereas 56 percent of white parents do. Half of black parents say the problem affects students regardless of family income, but 64 percent of white parents believe it is mainly focused on low-income families.
- More than half of African-American parents say the failure of black students to do well in schools is "a crisis and must be addressed quickly," but just over three in ten white parents say the same, although many say it's a serious problem. Few African-American and white parents say, "The problem is exaggerated."
- Sixty percent of black parents would switch their kids to a private school if they could afford to do so.
White Parents: Will My Children Have To Pay the Price?
The views of white parents on race and the public schools are complex and often ambivalent. They want African-American children to receive a good education that will allow them to succeed, and they firmly believe that good schools are something any child deserves. They take pride in refusing to judge people on the color of their skin and in being more tolerant than earlier generations of white Americans. But they also have anxieties: They describe a struggle to find good schools, and they are nervous about any changes that they believe could endanger their quality. Many white parents fear that an influx of African-American students into a school would bring social and academic problems. Most say it is not the students' race but the socioeconomic status of their families that concerns them. They are deeply uncomfortable about admitting what troubles them, however, because they fear if they voice their concerns they will be labeled racists.
- Sixty-one percent of white parents say, "One of the main reasons I live in this neighborhood is the quality of its schools," and slightly more than eight in ten agree that "since parents often pick a neighborhood for its schools, it's wrong to force them to send their kids elsewhere to achieve racial integration."
- Sixty-one percent of white parents say if a large number of black students started attending a mostly white public school there might be discipline and safety problems, lower reading levels, or more social problems. But 71 percent say a school can prevent problems. Fifty-two percent say a private school would do a better job of maintaining discipline and order in a similar situation.
- Eighty-two percent of white parents say they don't care about the race of the children in their schools so long as they come from good, hard-working families.
- Nearly nine in ten black and white parents (86 per-cent) say, "It is society's responsibility to make sure black students have teachers and schools that are just as good as those of white students"
- Seven in ten white parents and eight in ten black parents feel failing inner-city schools can overcome their problems with better resources, programs, and teachers.
- Nearly three-quarters of African-American and white parents say, "It is hard for whites to talk honestly about problems in the African-American community because they are afraid someone will accuse them of being racist."
Integration: It's All in the Details
Both black and white parents say integration is valuable, but on closer examination, white—and to some extent, black—fears emerge. Both groups believe integrated schools improve race relations and enhance their children's ability to thrive in a diverse world. But they are also wary of associated costs: that schools will be distracted from academics; that bitter disputes will emerge; that their own children will end up paying the price. Whites are fearful that integration will bring troubled children into local schools; blacks fear their children will be thrown into hostile and contentious school environments. Most parents want integration to occur naturally and are optimistic that things can improve. Ironically, relatively few have direct experience with efforts to achieve school integration.
- Nearly eight in ten African-American parents and close to seven in ten white parents say it is important that their own children's schools be racially integrated.
- About six in ten black and white parents favor achieving integration through magnet schools, and 69 percent of black and 60 percent of white parents favor "redrawing district lines to combine mostly black and mostly white districts into one district."
- Most black (73 percent) and white (65 percent) parents say black kids are usually the ones to bear the burden of integration.
- Sixty-nine percent of African-American parents and 62 percent of white parents say, "Efforts to integrate often backfire because white people end up leaving the schools or the communities that try to integrate."
- Sixty-nine percent of black and 81 percent of white parents say, "Given time, neighborhoods and schools will become more integrated on their own—you really can't force them."
- About seven in ten African-American (66 percent) and white (74 percent) parents consider themselves better than their parents at dealing with people of different races. And about half of parents in both groups think their kids do a better job than they do.
Of Like Minds: African-American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools
Despite many differences in their experiences and concerns, white and African-American parents have strikingly similar visions of what it takes to educate kids: involved parents, top-notch staff, and schools that guarantee the basics, high academic expectations, standards, safety, and order. White and black parents also share considerable common ground over how to help black children and failing schools improve.
- Black and white parents come within five percent-age points of each other on nine of twelve questions dealing with the absolutely essential characteristics of good schools, such as teaching good work habits, teaching standard English, and guaranteeing safety and order.
- About nine in ten African-American (88 percent) and white (92 percent) parents say, "Kids learn best when their families stress the importance of education; respect for the value of school begins at home."
- Sixty-three percent of black and 76 percent of white parents think a student from a supportive family who attends a poor school is more likely to succeed than a student from a troubled family who goes to a poor school.
- Eighty-three percent of black and 67 percent of white parents say they need to keep a close eye on teachers and schools to make sure their kids are treated well.
- African-American parents are more likely than white parents to think it's absolutely essential for schools to expect all kids to go on to college (51 percent to 31 percent).
- Fifty-five percent of black and 52 percent of white parents say it is the responsibility of the family, not the school or society, to address the problem when black students underachieve.
When asked about ways to fix failing schools and help African-American students who are doing poorly in school, there is a great degree of consensus among African-American and white parents. Solutions—such as expanding preschool programs to help prepare low-income black children for school, requiring parents of failing students to attend programs to teach them how to help their children learn, and having tough repercussions for students in possession of drugs or weapons or who are persistent troublemakers—receive high levels of support from both groups of parents. Solutions that would give families financial aid so they could move their children from failing public schools to private schools and charter schools attract somewhat less support.
Quotes, soundbites, and news headlines related to race and education debates can lead those following the issue to sense a great divide between the hopes of African-American and white parents for our nation's schools. While Time To Move On outlines some important areas of difference, it also identifies the many areas in which black and white parents are in close agreement. Their agendas are clear: African-American and white parents want safe and orderly schools to provide a solid background in the basics, have higher academic standards overall, and strong teaching staffs; and they want parents to get involved.
Steve Farkas and Jean Johnson are senior vice presidents of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan organization that does in-depth research on how the public views critical policy issues. Portions of First Things First, an earlier report on public education, appeared in the Winter 1994–1995 issue of American Educator.