What Do People Want From Schools? Opinions of the New Majority

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, April 14, 2016

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), a national coalition of 200 civil rights organizations active in education reform, released the findings of an important survey this past week. Entitled New Education Majority: Attitudes and Aspirations of Parents and Families of Color, the survey captured the education beliefs and concerns of African American and Hispanic parents.  It comes at an important time. For the first time in American history, the majority of students in the K-12 public education system are students of color, yet little is known about how parents of this “new majority” think about education issues or what they want from policymakers.

The Findings

Overall, the survey found that new majority parents perceive stark differences in quality between their schools and the schools attended by predominantly white student populations. They believe the main driver of this is unequal school funding, with 83% of African American parents and 61% of Hispanic parents believing that white schools receive more money than minority schools. Additionally, 66% of African American parents feel that predominantly white schools provide a better education, and a majority of them feel that schools do not do a good job preparing black students for the future.

New majority parents also worry about a lack of rigor in their schools. Huge majorities of both African American parents (90%) and Hispanic parents (84%) do not believe that students work hard enough and that students should be challenged more. They believe higher standards should be set for all students, and they reject by a nine-to-one margin the idea that low-income students should have lower academic expectations.

Finally, when asked how they value different school characteristics, items related to school safety, school resources, and teacher quality ranked at the top, suggesting that policymakers should make these areas a priority in school reform efforts.

Are Policymakers Addressing These Items? 

The LCCHR concluded its report by expressing concern that there is a misalignment between policymakers’ activities and the concerns of new majority parents: “The education debates conducted inside the Beltway – from testing and No Child Left Behind to Common Core and the appropriate role of the federal government – don’t resonate with new majority parents or reflect the priorities they have for their own families. The truth is, these debates have simply failed them.”

This is a broad statement, and people who study education could find evidence to the contrary. With regard to at least three important concerns parents raised in the survey – rigor, standards, and teacher quality – there has in fact been a great deal of policy deliberation over the past several years at least. Academic rigor and curriculum standards have been a focal point of education policymaking at the state and federal levels for decades. As early as the 1980s, activist political leaders – often governors – sought to impose universally high academic standards on schools, concerned that large numbers of students were not being held to high expectations. These efforts eventually percolated up to the federal level, with President Clinton even attempting (unsuccessfully) to institute national curriculum standards in 1997. Federal interest in standards and universal rigor continued to grow after the passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which forced states to adopt uniform curriculum standards and report test score data disaggregated by race and income so that the underperformance of minority students would be spotlighted. President George W. Bush famously stated that the main goal of the law was to eliminate the “soft bigotry of low expectations” affecting students of color. Similar rhetoric has been invoked more recently to support the Common Core, and Education Secretary John King has begun calling the Department of Education a “civil rights agency.” With regard to teacher quality, too, there has been a great deal of federal interest. NCLB required that there be a “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom, and in the years since its enactment, teacher quality concerns have risen to the top of education research agendas.

Still, the LCCHR is right to point out that there are also some very important concerns – namely, school safety and school funding – being neglected by policymakers. Not too long ago, amidst a national focus on crime reduction in the 1980s and 1990s, school safety was a predominant concern in education policy circles, and the issue occupied a central place in George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s education platforms. But since the turn of the 21st-century, this focus has waned and other reforms have taken the political foreground. Similarly, efforts to provide greater financial resources to schools have stalled in the face of economic recession and a general political distaste for “throwing money at a failed system.” Instead, driven by a faith in the principles of new public management, school reformers on both the left and the right have tried primarily to use existing educational dollars more efficiently, refusing to expand resource allocations overall. The results of this survey suggest that perhaps this faith should be set aside and greater resources should be made available to schools serving poor and minority students.

Overall, the LCCHR survey provides important insight into the concerns of minority parents – highlighting areas to which policymakers must devote serious attention. As the nation’s demographic make-up shifts, it will be critical to ensure that students of all racial backgrounds are receiving the high-quality education they deserve.

Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.