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The Public Gives Grades to Public Schools

National poll shows discrepancy in views of local schools and schools ''elsewhere''

Gangs, violence, lack of discipline - Mari Anne Harrison feels such problems are all too common in the halls and classrooms of many schools throughout the United States.

''I do believe there are drugs and guns in schools nationally,'' says Mrs. Harrison, a Virginia resident who has a daughter in grade school.

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What about schools a little nearer home, in other parts of her own city? ''We've had some problems there, too,'' she says, referring to news she's seen on local TV and in newspapers.

And what about the school her daughter attends, Venable elementary, not far from their home in Charlotteville, Va.? ''We have been very pleased with her school,'' Harrison says. ''It's one of the better city schools. We were thinking of moving, and we want our daughter to stay in that school for the last year.''

That grading curve - bad marks for schools nationally, middle for those nearer home, and top marks for local schools - is a striking feature of a major poll conducted recently by Phi Delta Kappa International, the professional education fraternity based in Bloomington, Ind.

Conducted in conjunction with the Gallup Organization of Princeton, N.J., the Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is the 27th in an annual series. Pollsters telephoned a random sample of 1,311 adults throughout the US, in areas ranging from large urban centers to suburbs to rural areas. Some respondents had children in schools and some did not.

''People tend to give high grades to the schools they know about, and lower grades to schools across the nation,'' says Lowell Rose, executive director of Phi Delta Kappa.

''We said, 'How would you grade the schools in your local community, in your neighborhood, the school your oldest child attends.' With each movement inward, the grades went higher. By the time you get to the school your oldest child attends, you've got over 60 percent of the people giving those schools an 'A' or a 'B.'''

Bad press or naivete?

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The poll result is a response, many experts say, to the bad press schools get nationally. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the media, says Jack Garrett, chairman of the education department at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill. ''It's usually not reporting the positive but the negative.''

Dr. Rose concurs: ''Something becomes news when there's a problem, and in places like the Philadelphia or New York schools, they are very much highlighted in the stories that go out.''

Some observers, however, say it may suggest that people are sometimes unaware of what's actually happening in their own schools. ''Urban schools particularly are in a crisis situation,'' Mr. Garrett says. Those conditions are likely reflected in the 38 percent who gave their own kids' schools a 'C' or lower grade.

Many polled said they believe authority is breaking down in America's schools, and that violence and discipline are major problems.

Except, that is, in their own schools.

To James Alouf, chairman of the education department at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., such reactions are disconcerting. ''They show how little the public is aware of national education issues, such as financing.... It's one of those things about us as a people. When we're close to something, we understand it and are ready to give it an 'A' or 'B.' But if you go to grade schools nationally, they seem to want to give them 'C's.''

The poll has high visibility among educators and has made similar findings for years. ''The poll each year gives us a benchmark to look at public attitudes toward education,'' says Lynne Weisenbach, dean of the school of education at the University of Indianapolis. ''A number of us use it in our courses.''

Rose says, ''We tell our people to use the poll to be alert to the attitudes you may run into. If we [in the business] don't see a discipline problem but the public does, that's something we've got to address.''

Mr. Garrett says the discrepancy between people's perception of their own experience and the national picture presents a crucial public relations challenge for educators: ''to convey that we're actually doing a much better job than we're sometimes given credit for doing.''

This year's results reflect the conservative movement dominant in politics today, Rose and other observers say. A trend in these polls, which is stronger now than it has ever been, indicates that people want more control of education at the state and local levels and less at the federal, Rose says, even if that means less federal money for their local schools.

Nationally, discipline ranked at the top of the list of school problems, cited by some 15 percent of those surveyed. Respondents also said that their local schools put more stress on academic standards, had better discipline, and experienced fewer racial incidents.

Higher standards wanted

Weisenbach illustrates thoughts at the local level: ''In the press you read there are bad things happening, yet when you walk in your own school, if your child is happy and you like the teachers, then you say, 'This place is OK.' ''

Adrienne Higgins of Kansas City, Mo., is quick to note the contrast. ''Gangs and violence aren't a problem in the particular schools my children attend,'' says Mrs. Higgins, who has a daughter in a pre-kindergarten class and a son in fourth grade. But as for other places in the country, she says the message is clear from the reports she reads and sees on TV.

Weisenbach says that public perception of local school conditions can be inaccurate. ''Frequently I would disagree with these parents who see their child in a safe, nurturing environment,'' she says, ''because there may be not be the academic accomplishment going on that the parents think there is.''

It may also have something to do with where exactly in a school building violence occurs, she continues. ''In-classroom discipline is usually not a problem, but the incidents parents read about are often reports on things in the cafeteria and the hallways, not classrooms.

For teachers, including many in the inner city, violence ranks much farther down the list of problems than it does with the public. ''For teachers ... parental support and control will be first or second. Decline in teacher authority will be high. And they'll put financing of public schools near the top,'' says Rose, basing his comment on past polls by his group.

The demand for higher academic standards is higher than it has ever been, Rose says. ''This year, to see how strong it was, we asked, 'Would you prefer higher standards in kindergarten through grade 3?' '' Almost 90 percent said yes. For later grades also, people want them raised ''even if it means fewer students will graduate,'' Rose says.

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