John Leo

Here's a reality check on the backlash: Last week Public Agenda, a non-partisan research group, released a nationwide poll of parents showing a massive consensus in favor of reform. "There is not anything that suggests a backlash or that a broad group of parents is dissatisfied," a spokesman said. Of the parents who knew about the drive for higher standards and testing in their school district, only 2 percent want to go back to the old ways. A total of 87 percent want to go ahead with plans to raise standards, either as announced in their area (53 percent), or with adjustments (34 percent). Only 18 percent thought that teachers in their child's school "focus so much on preparing for standardized tests that real learning is neglected." About 10 percent of parents complained of too much homework, too much pressure, too many tests or not enough extra help for struggling students.

A total of 80 percent thought their school district should require graduating students to pass a basic skills test in writing, reading and math or "a more challenging test" before granting diplomas, but 78 percent drew a line by opposing the sole use of a single test to determine graduation or promotion. (The Boston Globe made this the point of its coverage, under the wildly misleading headline: "Testing Rapped in Survey.") "Our numbers aren't iffy at all," said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda. "They do not support the story of a backlash that is gradually being reiterated again and again."

Backlash reiteration boomed last June around graduation time, then resumed again in September as pickets and protestors complained in many states. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and author of "Left Back," a new history of American schooling, calls the protestors "the crickets" -- few in number but making a lot of noise. She thinks that some of the negative media coverage of tests and standards may have something to do with the presidential race, since George W. Bush is so heavily identified with this issue.

Many polls undermine the backlash theory. One released last month by the Business Roundtable, an association of business chief executives, showed that two-thirds of Americans think students should have to pass a statewide test to graduate, with the number rising to 80 percent if students are given "several attempts" to pass. Two-thirds of blacks and whites and 82 percent of Hispanics endorsed graduation tests.

A year ago, a poll of teachers belonging to a union showed strong support for standards-based reform. The Albert Shanker Institute reported that members of the American Federation of Teachers supported these reforms by a 4-to-1 margin, though support for testing was less enthusiastic -- 55 percent thought the emphasis on testing tended to narrow the curriculum. Opponents of standards reform commonly argue that it tends to stigmatize or harm struggling students, but the teachers strongly disagreed. By almost 2 to 1, they said it mainly benefited these students. This finding may reflect the belief that minority children, many stuck in bad schools, have the most to gain from standards reform. A Rand Corp. study found that the Texas reforms produced largest gains for Hispanics and blacks.

The obvious is true: By an overwhelming majority, Americans are fed up with awful schools and want standards, meaningful tests and accountability. Skip all articles about a backlash. It doesn't exist.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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