Americans would likely deem the latest Nation's Report Card refrigerator-worthy. Results from the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress show that among 9-year-olds, the achievement gap between minorities and whites is the narrowest it has been in 30 years.
Nine in 10 Americans, according to the 2005 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools*, say it is very or somewhat important to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. The percentage who say closing the gap is important has remained high since the question was first posed in 2001. Over the years, however, there have been changes in how important Americans think it is.
In 2001, several months before the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, 66% of Americans said closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities was very important. While few Americans even now claim to know much about the specifics of NCLB, it's possible that they're at least aware that one of its primary goals, as implied by its title, is to close the achievement gap. Press coverage about NCLB may have helped increase that "very important" percentage to 80% in 2002. The "very important" percentage declined in 2003 and dropped back to pre-NCLB levels in 2004 and 2005.
Who's to Blame?
Americans don't see the quality of schooling as the main source of the problem. Most people continue to believe, as they have since 2001, that other factors are at work. Just 17% say the achievement gap is mostly related to the quality of schooling students receive, while 75% say it is related to "other factors."
Respondents weren't asked what those "other factors" are, but their responses to another question offer some insight. Americans were asked who is most important in determining how well or how poorly students perform; 43% say the students' parents are most important, 20% say the students themselves, and 33% say the students' teachers are pivotal.
Who Should Fix It?
Although most Americans say factors outside the classroom are mostly responsible for the achievement gap and are more likely to say parents, rather than teachers, are the most important determinant of student performance, a majority say public schools are responsible for closing the gap. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say schools are responsible, while 37% disagree. This sentiment hasn't changed much since the question was first asked in 2001.
Can We Fix It? Yes, We Can
Educators have characterized NCLB as a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't take students' individual needs into account, and criticized it for potentially fostering a teach-to-the-test mentality. Most Americans, however, think the achievement gap can be narrowed substantially while maintaining high standards for all children. Whether Americans see NCLB as a bridge or a roadblock, they think the gap can be closed without creating a new one.
*This article contains findings from the 37th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, released on Aug. 23 in Washington, D.C.
The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,000 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from June 9 to June 26, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.