Achievement Gap: Public Doesn't Blame Schools

by Coleen McMurray, Senior Staff Writer

This article contains findings from the 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, released on Aug. 20 in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently reported that in 1999, academic performance gaps between black students and white students between the ages of 13 and17 were wider than the gaps that existed in 1988. The report notes that these gaps are associated with disparities in dropout rates, as well as pay and unemployment rates.

On Oct. 14, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige acknowledged that, "Despite some gains, black children and adults don't advance to the next level at the same rate as our white peers." This is the kind of finding that led President Bush to make education reform -- and the No Child Left Behind Act in particular -- a legislative priority in his first days in office. The results of the 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools shed some light on how the rest of the American population feels about the widening achievement gap in U.S. schools.

Americans feel that closing the achievement gap between white students and black students and Hispanic students is very important. Nine in 10 Americans said that closing this gap is either very (71%) or somewhat (19%) important. Although the percentage saying that closing the gap is "very important" has declined compared to the 80% who responded this way last year, the current results suggest that this issue is still a national priority.

Nearly 6 in 10 adults (58%) are optimistic that the achievement gap can be narrowed without spending more money than is currently being spent to help low-achieving students. Parents of public school children are slightly more sanguine about the possibility of narrowing the gap than are those who do not have children in school (62% vs. 56%).

Given the current state budget crises, it may seem surprising that most Americans believe the academic achievement gap can be addressed without spending any more money on the schools. However, that may partly be explained by the fact that when they are asked if the gap is "mostly related to the quality of schooling received or mostly due to other factors," 8 in 10 say "other factors."

So what are the other factors that Americans feel are responsible for the achievement gap? The amount of parental involvement (90%) and home life or upbringing (87%) are most likely to be rated as "very important" factors associated with racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Many Americans also consider student interest (80%) and the community environment (66%) to be very important factors contributing to the achievement gap. Relatively few see racial bias (42%) or family income (26%) as very important contributors to the divide.

When asked about the academic achievement gap between Asian students and white students, Americans view parenting, home life, and student interest as the most important explanations for the gap. Once again, family income falls to the very bottom of the list of contributing factors.

Bottom Line

NCLB was specifically designed to close the achievement gap. Enacted with broad congressional support, it puts the responsibility for improvement squarely on the shoulders of the nation's school systems. As Paige stated in October, "With bipartisan support it became the law of the land. It is a tough law, but it is a good law. It focuses attention on the children who most need our help; but it benefits all children. I know it can be done . . . "

Time will tell whether the mandated state-level enforcement of NCLB will be effective in narrowing the achievement gaps. But it is interesting to note that, according to the PDK/Gallup data, the majority of Americans believe that the most important solutions to the existing racial and ethnic gaps lie outside of the nation's classrooms. If the views of Americans are any indication, NCLB will not be enough to narrow these gaps.

*The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,011 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from May 28 to June 18, 2003. 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.

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