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Education Opinion

PDK Finds Public Likes Teachers, Down on Teacher Unions, Mixed on Obama

By Rick Hess — August 17, 2011 2 min read
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Today, Phi Delta Kappan releases its 43rd annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll on public schools (full disclosure: I’ve been a regular member of the advisory panel for several years now). As always, there’s much to chew on.

I’ll start by noting that I’m not a huge fan of the American public right now. After all, we’re the twits who demand lots of services but don’t want to pay for them. And then we get angry when our leaders can’t square this circle. We insist that they take painful steps to rein in spending, and then complain when they try to do it. In short, we’ve shown all the character and discipline of an irate preschooler. But what else is new?

That said, there are highlights worth noting. First off, you know all that griping from teacher leaders that there’s some mean-spirited “war” being waged against educators? Well, three out of four Americans say they want high-achieving high school students to become teachers, and two out of three would want their own child to become a teacher. Oh, and 69% of respondents give public school teachers an A or B; that’s up from 50% in 1984.

There’s good news on the productivity front. Eighty percent of respondents believe that high school classes with more students and a better teacher would result in higher student achievement than would smaller classes with less effective teachers. Since smaller classes necessarily require more teachers, and since there’s not an unlimited amount of terrific teachers out there, that suggests there may be an opportunity to wean the public from its reflexive enthusiasm for spending more and more money on smaller classes.

This reminds me of an intriguing point relating to teacher pay that was addressed by this month’s Ed Next/Harvard PEPG survey (published while I was on RHSU hiatus). When asked whether “teacher salaries in the United States should” increase, decrease, or stay the same, 55% of respondents said they ought to increase. But that figure dropped twelve percent points when respondents were told how much teachers currently earn. When respondents were told, “According to the most recent information available, teachers in the United States are paid an average annual salary of $54,819,” and then asked about salaries, support for increasing them declined to 43%.

Especially with the Wisconsin recalls finally wrapping up yesterday, was interesting to see some of the data on views of unions. Thirty-five years ago, in 1976, 38% of Americans thought teacher unions hurt public education and 22% believed they helped it. Today, opinion is more polarized and more negative: 47% believe unions hurt public education and 26% believe they help it. Yet, in an interesting wrinkle, just over half of those surveyed sided with the unions, rather than governors, in states where there were disputes over collective bargaining.

The phenomenon of “love my local schools, but hate America’s schools” was stronger than ever. Fifty-one percent of Americans give their local public schools an A or B, but just 17% of Americans would give the public schools nationally an A or B.

Overall, 41% of respondents gave President Obama an A or B on his performance with regards to public education. Opinion split cleanly along party lines. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats give the President an A or B, while 16% of Republicans do so. Thirty-five percent of Republicans give the President an F, while just 2% of Democrats do so. You think that reporters might finally notice, and move past the notion that education politics are marked by mystical bipartisan consensus? Nah, me neither.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.