To judge by the headlines, America is awash in dropout-factory schools, bad teachers and administrators who condone cheating. Not to mention hidebound unions, illiterate pupils and overall malingering in many guises.
So would it surprise you to hear that Americans, by and large, adore their teachers and think the schools their kids attend are doing quite well?
In June, the teacher professional association Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup surveyed 1,000 adults on their perceptions of schools and education. Published in the September issue of Kappan magazine, the results are remarkable.
A whopping 71 percent of Americans profess to have high trust and confidence in teachers and 79 percent give the school their oldest child attends an A or a B. That’s 2 percentage points higher than last year and 19 points higher than in 1984.
The takeaway, according to the authors of “Betting on Teachers”: “With all the heated discourse about American public education documentary films, opinion articles in newspapers, and more opinions on blogs — or perhaps despite them, Americans have reached their own conclusions about what’s necessary to ensure a good education for all children: Identify and retain great teachers.
“Not only do Americans understand the need for great teachers, they also trust and support teachers who are in classrooms now. And when it comes to choosing between highly effective teachers versus class size or the style of presentation, they go with teachers every time.”
President Obama’s support of public education earned him an A from 11 percent of respondents and a B from 30 percent — all the more astonishing when you consider that the president’s approval rating last month dipped to a new, very low 26 percent.
While it’s clear we love our teachers, more than two thirds of respondents — 68 percent — believe news coverage of teaching and education is quite negative.
Bad press notwithstanding, three-fourths of Americans believe the highest achieving students should be encouraged to go into teaching and the same percentage say they would encourage the brightest person they know to consider teaching.
We’re not so confident about other people’s parenting and the schools their kids attend, and, while unions enjoy more public support than the governors who this year have waged war on organized labor, they are losing ground in the public’s estimation.
In 1974, one in four Americans thought teachers unions played helpful role in public education, while 13 percent were undecided. The number who believe unions make a positive contribution has stayed stable, but the number who think unions hurt has risen to nearly half. Very few current respondents have no opinion.
Overall, 52 percent side with the unions in the recent disputes, versus 44 percent with the governors. Not surprisingly, responses to this question broke down along party lines, with 71 percent of Republicans siding with the governors and 80 percent of Democrats agreeing with labor. Independents were evenly split.
Only 17 percent of those polled would give As and Bs to the nation’s schools as a whole, down from 22 percent in 2008. And only 36 percent of us would give the parents in their local schools As and Bs for their childrearing.
More than a third say a lack of funding is the largest problem confronting schools, up from 26 percent in 2006 and 15 percent in 2001.
Choice and vouchers
Our understanding of the issues in education today is more nuanced than one might expect. Three-fourths of those surveyed believe families should have a choice of schools, a new high of 70 percent support the concept of chartering and 70 percent want teachers to have control over what and how they teach in their individual classrooms.
Just one in three approve of vouchers, a decrease from a high of 46 percent in 2002.
A majority of respondents think more effective teachers are more likely to increase student achievement than smaller class sizes, favor public access to teacher performance data and would prefer that teacher layoffs take multiple factors, not just seniority, into consideration.
We’re high on the Internet — 91 percent want access for all students — but ambivalent about kids use of e-readers and other personal electronics. (We don’t seem to have any confusion at all when it comes to adults and technology, however: iPad users can download a PDK/Gallup app loaded with charts and tables.)
Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul, was among the educators and policymakers quoted by The Kappan on the polls results. “When I look at this year’s PDK/Gallup poll results, I see three trends emerging: Respect, empowerment, and choice,” he commented.
“As a former urban public school teacher married to a 33-year veteran of urban public schools, and parent of an urban public school teacher, I was gratified to see that two-thirds or more of Americans respect the profession since they would encourage ‘the brightest person you know’ and ‘a child of yours’ to become a public school teacher,” he added. “While some educators feel a lack of respect, this poll found considerable support for the profession.
“[T]hat esteem is demonstrated in the willingness of 73 percent of poll respondents to empower educators by ‘giv(ing) teachers flexibility to teach in ways they think best,’ rather than require them ‘to follow a prescribed curriculum,’” Nathan continued. “I hope creative, committed, hardworking teachers find these responses encouraging.”
Finally, Nathan applauded the high rate of approval among poll respondents for charters and parental choice: “These responses are consistent with empowering educators to decide how they teach,” he noted.