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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Public Prefers Competent Teachers to Other Reforms, Survey Finds

Public Prefers Competent Teachers to Other Reforms, Survey Finds

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While policymakers and pundits hotly debate the merits of vouchers, national tests, and limiting class sizes, the American public is more interested in the qualifications of the people who work most closely with students, a survey shows.

Teacher quality emerged as one of the highest educational priorities--second only to school safety--in the public opinion poll released last week by Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Belmont, Mass., nonprofit group that advocates better school-hiring practices.

Outlined in a new report called "The Essential Profession," the research was led by pollster Louis Harris, who chairs Recruiting New Teachers, and was paid for by the Philip Morris Cos. The results were based on a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,504 adults, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Nine out of 10 respondents rated "ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom" as a very important goal. That compared with 77 percent who cited "a challenging curriculum," 71 percent who chose "strict discipline," and 56 percent who picked "reduced class size." Only 16 percent thought school uniforms should be a high priority.

"I think we're seeing a sea change in America, where teachers had once been viewed as central to the problem--as the target--and they are now being viewed as the solution," David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers, said at a press conference held here to release the survey results.

But while they expressed faith in the power of teacher quality, respondents also suggested that the educators now in the schools have room for improvement. While half considered their communities' teachers "well qualified," just 19 percent described them as "highly qualified."

Political Implications

Improving teacher quality also won soundly when it went head-to-head against school choice. The survey asked people which was a better school improvement strategy: working to put a fully qualified teacher in every classroom or allowing parents to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. Overall, 84 percent chose teacher quality; 94 percent of African-American respondents did so.

The results follow a series of recent surveys, such as this fall's Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, showing that vouchers enjoy growing public support, especially among minorities. ("Poll Finds Americans Split Over Public Funding of Private Education," Sept. 9, 1998.)

But Mr. Harris criticized the questions about vouchers in those surveys for "never having an alternative pitted against them."

In releasing the findings, Mr. Harris said the poll tracks well with the public sentiment expressed in this month's congressional elections, in which Republicans fared worse than most analysts expected.

"Basically, the Republican position was to allow for the privatization of public education," he said. But for most Americans, the pollster said, "it is the public schools they want to save, not to siphon children off to the private sector."

Some education policy experts, however, questioned such a link between the survey results and the election outcomes.

"It's really hard to interpret the election returns as a referendum on education," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "There were a lot of people who won the election at the state level who are very much in favor of school choice," added Mr. Finn, a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.

But Mr. Haselkorn said the survey reflects a common-sense approach toward improving the schools, especially given predictions that the country will have to hire some 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade. "If we want to meet our education objectives," he said, "we need to make sure they are the best and most talented generation of teachers we've ever known."

Growing Respect

The poll results also suggest that the public holds the profession of teaching in high esteem.

Asked which of eight different professionals contributed the greatest benefit to society, 62 percent of the respondents chose teachers, far more than the second-ranked answer, physicians, selected by 17 percent. Teaching and medicine came out nearly tied, however, when those polled were asked what career they would recommend to a family member.

The three initiatives most supported by the public as a means for improving teacher quality were: creating mentor programs for educators, strengthening state licensing requirements, and raising salaries.

In some areas, though, public opinion appeared to challenge the thinking of many teacher-quality experts. Only about 37 percent of the respondents, for example, thought it was very important for teachers to have a strong liberal arts education and a master's degree from an accredited school of education.

"It's clear that the public expects states to raise standards," Mr. Haselkorn said. "They're less interested in the mechanisms than in the end results."

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 6

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