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New poll finds Californians want some school reforms, not others

STANFORD -- Californians are markedly less satisfied with their public schools now than they were three years ago and are willing to support innnovative teaching methods, such as group learning, to improve them.

Those were among the findings of a new poll of California voters conducted last month for Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a 13-year-old research center focusing on issues of state education policy and practice. Michael Kirst, Stanford professor of education, is one of three directors of PACE, which is located in the education schools at Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley.

The poll is one of the few comprehensive polls on education in which findings are released to the public rather than to private parties, such as political parties or educational organizations, Kirst said. The telephone survey of 803 adults was conducted between Feb. 9 and 29, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Overall, Kirst said, results indicate that "the public cares and is dissatisfied" with the state's public schools, and has definite ideas on how to improve them. That interest is probably one reason that candidates for state office this year are emphasizing education in their campaigns, he said.

"Candidates are listing education as their number one or two priority, which is much higher than in 1994, when [the murder of] Polly Klaas and the 'three-strikes-you're-out' [anti-crime] initiative were overwhelming," he said. "In 1994, state voters voted down school bonds for the first time in 15 years, but the new poll results suggest that is not likely to happen this year."

PACE conducted a more limited public opinion survey in 1993 to assess public feelings about Proposition 174, an initiative that would have allowed parents to spend government-financed vouchers on private education. The poll correctly predicted the ballot measure would lose, even though only one-third of those polled believed the public schools in their state were excellent or good.

Three years later, the number of respondents who think California schools are good or excellent has shrunk to 17 percent, Kirst said, and 54 percent think the system of public education in California "needs a major overhaul." (A majority of 56 percent, however, still opposes vouchers for private schools as a means to complete that overhaul.)

"I don't know of any evidence that there has been a big decline in school performance," Kirst said. "On the other hand, if the public view shows a significant drop in confidence in them, this is worrisome, because it makes [the schools] vulnerable to various kinds of challenges and [proposals] for overhauls."

Politicians currently are discussing proposals for reducing class size, he said, and the poll suggests that the public supports that idea, but it is not clear where the money would come from. "It has been estimated that the teacher salary cost alone of reducing the state's [current teacher to pupil ratio of 24] to the national average, 17, would cost approximately $3.7 billion per year."

Most surprising to Kirst, he said, were poll results that suggest that Californians are more open to innovations in teaching and learning than respondents to national polls. National polls by the Public Agenda Foundation, he said, have shaped the national debate on education by finding that the public, in general, is "not interested in changing the ways we teach and learn from [what was done] 20 or 30 years ago."

Californians were less conservative. While eight out of 10 don't think children should be allowed to use calculators to solve math problems in the early grades, and six out of 10 oppose their use in high school, six out of 10 did support teaching students to write "even before they learn grammar and spelling," and three-fourths said they supported "having students learn in small groups, instead of working individually."

In some communities, Kirst said, "vocal opponents of allowing students to work in groups have said they think it holds back the smarter kids," even though research results by Stanford's Elizabeth Cohen and others have found that not to be the case. The greater support for group learning found in the state poll than in national polls, Kirst said, should serve as a caution to legislators and other policymakers. "This is not a national-average state, and imputing state attitudes from national polls is risky," he said.

Californians also did not select the state legislature when asked whom they trusted the most to make decisions about setting student discipline policies, promotion and graduation standards, or deciding what textbooks or teaching methods to use. The legislature last year tried to dictate the method of reading instruction that would be used, Kirst said.

Three of every four individuals polled said they supported the state's "zero-tolerance" policy that automatically expels students who bring drugs, guns or other weapons to school. Three of four also prefer, however, that such students not be left on the street, Kirst said. Rather, they think troublemakers should be placed in special schools away from those who behave.

The poll did not assess Californians' attitudes toward higher education, Kirst said, "but we did find a lot of support for those institutions to raise their entrance standards to assess what [high school] students have actually learned in courses. Now, we just give them the SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test]."

Fiscal equity was also a concern of those polled, with 73 percent saying that not enough funding for schools in poor communities was a bigger problem than well-to-do communities being held back (chosen as a bigger problem by 8 percent).

PACE is funded by the Hewlett Foundation. The poll itself was funded by the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.



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