Fordham Institute Asks Parents Their Thoughts on Education

The mission of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is to explore issues dealing with education reform such as following the path of adoption of the new Common Core Standards and looking at how states are progressing on legislation to allow students and their families more choice in selecting their education options. This time Fordham is examining parental attitudes on the education system at the time when school budgets are tightening.

According to the results of a new survey, parents have a lot to say on the state of America’s secondary schools. Many support the dramatic changes that have recently begun to overturn the status quo and that are remaking the academic system from the traditional public school paradigm. Everything from how school districts operate to retirement plans for district and school staff should get a second look, say those polled.

More than 60% of respondents said that they understand the difficult situations that schools now find themselves in. Even more — 77% — believe that financial difficulties are going to last a while and aren’t likely to ease in the near future. Nearly half felt that if their own district was dealing under a severe budget crunch, they should use the opportunity to drastically overhaul how they do business in order to save money.

Although the enthusiasm for reform seems to be running high, when the questioners were asked about specific policies, many parents balked. Surprisingly, even though the overwhelming majority supported staff cuts as a means to save money, the enthusiasm about cutting non-teaching staff and converting to digital learning was met with skepticism.

What policies had the most public support?

— Shrink the administration. A broad majority (69 percent) supports “reducing the number of district level administrators to the bare minimum” as a good way to save money because “it means cutting bureaucracy without hurting classrooms.”

— Freeze salaries to save jobs. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) say freezing salaries for one year for all district employees is a good way to save money “because the district can avoid laying off people.”

— If teachers must be laid off, base it on their effectiveness, not years of service. About three in four (74 percent) say that those with poor performance should be “laid off first and those with excellent performance protected”; only 18 percent would have “newcomers laid off first and veteran teachers protected.”

Those surveyed aren’t the only ones who think that this period of austerity is an excellent opportunity to try something different and innovative that might begin a rebirth of America’s secondary education; the view is also shared by the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

My message is that this challenge can, and should, be embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo. It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.

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