MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Americans adore teachers and think schools are doing quite well

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.

A whopping 71 percent of Americans profess to have high trust and confidence in teachers.
A whopping 71 percent of Americans profess to have high trust and confidence in teachers.

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.

Negative coverage
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.

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.
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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/02/2011 - 11:02 am.

    Hmmm. This might be a poster child for the term “counterintuitive.”

    Legislative momentum, here in the upper Midwest, at least, seems to be in the opposite direction. The emphasis on testing requires a prescribed curriculum, attacking teachers’ organization weakens, rather than empowers teachers, and the responsibility for the yawning achievement gap has been placed – by those outside education – almost entirely on the shoulders of teachers.

    Given the legislative attitudes so recently demonstrated here and in neighboring Wisconsin, these results suggest either that Republicans are very much out of touch with the general public regarding public education, or there are significant problems with the survey. I await further developments…

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/02/2011 - 11:33 am.

    Apparently ALL the Republican legislators in this WHOLE country are in the 27 percent who don’t think teachers are doing a good job. They don’t trust teachers, they think teachers are sponges on our treasury and that all the kids who graduate, with the exception of their own, are worthless.

    So WHY do we elect people who don’t represent our values?

  3. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 09/02/2011 - 11:44 am.

    Republicans out of touch with the general public? Say it isn’t so! This is another example of a “fact” (bad teachers) being recycled repeatedly through the conservative wind machine until it becomes a common wisdom. The results of this study replicate the findings of similar studies including one from 2006 published on the Brain Frieze website called “What the Public *Really* Thinks about Education.”

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2011 - 11:51 am.

    Journalistic integrity aside, headline gaffes generally do not bother me as long as the information contained within is accurate.

    That being said, I’m at a loss to understand how this quote “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.” can be interpreted to mean “Americans…think schools are doing quite well.”

    I also might have appreciated an observation regarding the polls’ evident affirmation of the public’s ability to discerne the difference between “teachers”, which are adored, and “Teacher’s Union”, which are not much adored at all.

  5. Submitted by Carlos Mariani on 09/02/2011 - 12:14 pm.

    Yes, at MMEP we concur with your read of the PDK poll; that the public strongly supports public education and that this is often obscured by the dominant political climate and debate. However, the poll also shows support for change. For example, respondents embrace measuring teacher effectiveness based on student outcomes and accept that teacher pay should be based -at least partly – on that.

    This means that the choices served up by the major political antagonists for framing education policy doesn’t hold water for the public. For example, on one hand the public rejects fierce union resistance to performance pay, while also dismissing those who label unions as “bad” for such resistance. The poll shows the public having a more mature approach to change by understanding that fairness to teachers must also factor into change agendas.

    We need political leadership that reflects this maturity.

    See: http://mmepcommentary.com/shapethetop/?p=178

  6. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/02/2011 - 12:33 pm.

    There is a great divide, obviously, between the perception of how THEIR schools are doing vs. what ALL schools are doing. That is, when asked how the school that THEIR kid is attending is doing, they overwhelmingly approve (79% an A or B), whereas, when asked how all schools across the nation are doing, they disapprove (17% an A or B). This would strongly suggest that the negative vibes being passed through the media are affecting how people view schools, in general, but when they see first hand at the schools their kids attend, they realize it’s not so bad…for one school. The thing is, parents are protective of their kids, so if schools were really doing such a poor job with their kids, they’d be giving them a double F if they could. The fact that each individual sees their own schools as good indicates that schools, in general, are doing well, but that individuals can’t see beyond their own schools and the negative press.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/02/2011 - 01:16 pm.

    “The fact that each individual sees their own schools as good indicates that schools, in general, are doing well..”

    “Good” is a very subjective measure Rachel.

    Many American public schools are doing an adequate-to-good job as measured against global test metrics. However most urban schools are failing miserably by any (academic) metric one might care to put to use, including the one that might really indicate how “good” parents feel about their schools; enrollment.

    By that measure, it’s clear this poll didn’t contact parents from Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland etc..

  8. Submitted by scott gibson on 09/02/2011 - 01:32 pm.

    Replace the word ‘teacher’ with ‘politician’. THOSE politicians are bad, bad, bad. MY elected representative, on the other hand, is just wonderful. A bit of a disconnect. The ‘Waiting for Superman’ disparagers are no longer the outside voice, they are the loudest voice heard (without providing true evidence of educational improvement). Unions are vilified for trying to protect the salaries of their members (which is, of course, why all of us work for a living). It might be a good idea to follow the money to see who stands to gain monetarily from proposed reforms. Teaching / education is hard. It is complex and difficult to quantify in a business sense. Wishing it were otherwise will not make it so. And, Swifty, if you bash the unions, you ARE bashing teachers.

  9. Submitted by kay kessel on 09/02/2011 - 07:05 pm.

    Finally your Minn Post issue has informed the public about our Public School Teachers. I supervised teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools for 15 years and I can tell you how remarkable they were.

    Every year the Administrators led the teacher performance documentation and Lynn Nordgren was the brilliant administrator for Teacher/Administrator performance efforts. She more recently became the President Of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

    Administrators were transferred frequently but teachers maintained the real academic progress and support for students at Roosevelt, Washburn and South High.

    I retired in 2002 and went to the legislature to lobby for Education Finance. Under Governor Pawlenty’s leadership I saw all the programs that helped our underachieving students cut including early childhood, special education, ESL, Extended Day, summer school, and on and on. Every time Gov. Pawlenty delivered his State of the State he went after teachers. So did the Chamber of Commerce and many other lobbyists. This survey tells the true story about our Minnesota teachers.

    Our public schools provide opportunity for academic excellence, nutrition, a safe place to be, student support services including health clinics, crisis support for one of of four students are homeless. At South High we worked with the County Attorney’s office regarding truancy and we monitored every student. One young man, who was a very successful student had many absences. I discovered he and his mother were in a shelter in St. Paul. We gave him a bus card and he never missed again. I am sure he graduated and received scholarships to go on to college.

    I hope more surveys such as this reveal the truth about teachers, administrators and all the support staff in the schools such as counselors, psychologists, nurses, all so vital for our successful schools.

    Kay Kessel
    Retired Educator MPS
    Richfield, Minnesot

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/04/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    I would agree with Mr. Swift, most all of the schools with poor ratings are in urban areas.

    Schools in poor neighborhoods have the added challenge of overcoming habits established in homes and earlier schools, habits of language, dress, respect, and discipline. It can be a blow to the parents’ pride to see their children educated to become different from them. A parent who has to fight to get their child into a “good school” is already determined to make their child different from his or her peers.

    Student success is most highly corellated not with good teachers or good schools, but with good parents. Parents of any income level who drill into their kids’ heads the importance of education, who stress written rather than visual media, and who support the actions of their childrens’ teachers and schools produce consistently successful students.

    Schools will never really succeed until parents force their kids to take education seriously, and allow hard work and discipline to be the watchwords at their children’s schools. Teachers need to ask more of students, and adults need to stand resolutely in the face of their beloved yet lazy children, and force them to deliver. In the end, that will be the real reform.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/05/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    Well no surprise but even in the face of data and a verifiable case report from an esteemed Minneapolis educator and former administrator still “doubt.” The whine machine continues.

Leave a Reply