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ON THE FRONT LINES OF SCHOOLS: National Survey of Teachers and Principals Finds Tepid Support for Holding All Students to High Standards

“This expectations gap between students and teachers—which our research shows is very real—may be one of the most important barriers to closing the achievement gap.”

Less than one third of teachers believe that schools should expect all students to meet high academic standards, graduate with the skills to do college-level work, and provide extra support to struggling students to help them meet those standards, according to a national survey of public high school teachers and principals who say that at least a few students drop out of their school and fail to complete their high school education each year. This belief flies in the face of an earlier survey of high school dropouts, in which two thirds of dropouts said they would have worked harder if more were demanded of them.2 On the Front Lines of Schools, a report presenting the results from teachers and principals, says this “expectations gap” between teachers and students must be narrowed if efforts to close the achievement gap are to be successful.

“This expectations gap between students and teachers—which our research shows is very real—may be one of the most important barriers to closing the achievement gap,” said John Bridgeland, president and chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, LLC. “Research has shown the importance of high expectations in boosting student achievement.”

On the Front Lines of Schools finds that 58 percent of principals believe schools should hold all students to high academic standards, but significant majorities of both teachers (75 percent) and principals (66 percent) doubt that students at risk of dropping out would respond to these high expectations and work harder. Rather than having all students meet high standards, 59 percent of teachers and 41 percent of principals think that schools should have a separate track to allow students who are not college bound to get a diploma without achieving these same high standards. These beliefs contrast with a previous finding that 66 percent of dropouts said they would have worked harder had more been demanded of them in the classroom.

The report finds a common understanding of the dropout problem among principals and teachers, with 76 percent of principals and 59 percent of teachers saying that the national dropout rate is at least a major problem, but fewer principals and teachers believe that dropouts were a problem at their particular school. Indeed, 48 percent of teachers and 55 percent of principals say their school’s graduation rate is 90 percent or higher while only 23 percent of teachers and 20 percent of principals say their school graduates less than 80 percent of its incoming freshman class.

In general, teachers (61 percent) and principals (45 percent) believe that a lack of support at home was a factor in most cases of students’ decisions to drop out. More specifically, 74 percent of teachers and 69 percent of principals feel that parents bore “all or most of the responsibility” for their children dropping out. Significant majorities of teachers (62 percent) and principals (60 percent) acknowledge that students’ lack of academic preparedness for high school was a factor in at least some dropout cases.

Previous research found nearly half (47 percent) of dropouts said they left school because they found it boring and uninteresting and did not see the relevance of school to real life. That reason did not jive with 42 percent of teachers, who feel that students who said they dropped out because school was boring were just making excuses. However, half of all teachers and 69 percent of principals believe these former students were “speaking to an important cause.”

The report finds strong support among teachers and principals for reforms that would help reduce the dropout rate such as alternative learning communities (77 percent of teachers and 71 percent of principals expressed strong support), reducing class size (75 percent and 54 percent, respectively), expanding college-level learning opportunities (61 and 58 percent), and early warning systems to help struggling students as early as elementary school (70 and 71 percent). But, as the report notes, “none of these efforts are likely to be as successful without the fundamental expectation that all students should meet high academic standards and be provided supports to graduate ready for college and the work force.”

The complete report and survey results, as well as past research by Civic Enterprises, are available at

2) On the Front Lines of Schools, a June 2009 report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AT&T Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance, comes on the heels of earlier research by Civic Enterprises—The Silent Epidemic, released in April 2006, which included the perspectives of high school dropouts, and One Dream, Two Realities, released in October 2008, which provided the parent perspective.


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