Teachers Tell Pollster Lack of Support From Parents Impedes School Reform

By Ann Bradley — June 14, 1989 4 min read

A majority of teachers surveyed in a new poll do not think the public schools in their communities have improved after five years of educational reform, and they cite a lack of parental interest and support as the biggest obstacle to improvement.

In the mail survey of the attitudes of 2,000 teachers conducted by the Gallup Organization for Phi Delta Kappa, 38 percent of those polled said the schools had remained “about the same” over the past five years, while 25 percent said they had “gotten worse.” Thirty-six percent said schools had gotten better during that period.

At the same time, two-thirds of those polled gave their own community’s schools a grade of A or B for quality, and 75 percent rated the school in which they teach that way.

As had the first Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey of teachers in 1984, the new poll found that teachers viewed parents’ lack of interest as a greater concern than student discipline or drug abuse, both of which are cited frequently in surveys of the general public as serious problems for the schools.

In the 1984 poll, 31 percent of teachers cited parental indifference as a concern, while 34 percent did so in the latest survey.

In addition to the sense among teachers that the performance of the educational system is not solely within their control, the new poll also recorded signs of continuing low morale in the teacher workforce.

In general, suggests Stanley M. Elam, coordinator of the educational fraternity’s polling program, the new findings portray a “disgruntled” teachers corps who “tend to regard themselves as martyrs.”

“Overwhelmingly, they believe that they are unappreciated and underrewarded,” Mr. Elam writes in the June issue of Phi Delta Kappan, “and they blame almost everyone but themselves for recognized school problems.”

Those polled, for example, ranked teaching first on a list of 12 professions or occupations for its value to society, but ranked it last on the same list in terms of its status--behind realtors, funeral directors, and the advertising industry.

And while 83 percent of the respondents gave teachers A’s or B’s for quality, only 49 percent gave school administrators similarly good grades and only 29 percent rated school boards that highly.

More Sanguine on Salaries

The new Gallup findings echo those of a 1988 survey by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in which 70 percent of the teachers gave the education-reform movement a grade of C or lower.

Despite teachers’ pessimism about the reform era, however, the survey found somewhat less dissatisfaction with salaries than was reported in 1984, when 9 in 10 teachers said their salaries were too low. In the new survey, 82 percent of the respondents expressed that view, while 18 percent said their pay was “just about right.”

Fewer teachers said they believed the schools were having difficulty hiring good teachers, the survey reported. In 1984, 37 percent of the respondents said hiring was a problem, while 19 percent in the new poll said that was true.

Teachers in the new poll also perceived schools as being more successful in retaining teachers, with 32 percent responding that their school had difficulty retaining good teachers, compared with 48 percent in 1984.

Low salaries continue to be the most frequently cited reason for leaving the profession, the survey found. The second most common reason, picked by 69 percent of the teachers, was “lack of public financial support for education,” which was chosen by only 26 percent of the 1984 respondents.

That increase was the most dramatic shift in opinion revealed in the survey, according to Mr. Elam.

Opposed to Differential Pay

Teachers continue to have negative attitudes toward the controversial issues of merit and differential pay, the survey found. Their views differ sharply, Mr. Elam notes, from those expressed by the public in the 1988 Gallup poll on education, which found 84 percent favoring merit pay and opinion “about evenly divided” on paying teachers of mathematics, science, or vocational and technical subjects more.

The teacher survey also revealed continuing opposition to lengthening the school day or the school year--two recommendations made in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Only 30 percent of teachers favored lengthening the school year, while 24 percent favored extending the school day by one hour.

But an overwhelming majority of teachers back the report’s recommendation that all high-school students be required to take more coursework in such core subjects as English, history, science, and foreign languages.

Not Enough Control

A new question measuring teachers’ attitudes toward the amount of control they have over the educational process found dissatisfaction in 9 out of 10 categories.

Teachers were most dissatisfied with their ability to set academic standards for their school and establish the school schedule, the poll found.

But it also found what Mr. Elam calls “reassuring agreement” between teachers and the public on the overall goals of education, and “considerable stability” over the past five years in teachers’ perception of their importance.

In several instances, however, teachers’ emphasis on certain goals has increased over the last five years; students’ ability to think creatively, objectively, and analytically, for example, was prized by 80 percent of the teachers in 1989, compared with 56 percent in 1984.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Teachers Tell Pollster Lack of Support From Parents Impedes School Reform