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Poll Finds U.S. Teachers Split on Role of Unions, Pay Incentives, Tenure

By Scott J. Cech — May 08, 2008 3 min read

Most public school teachers are unequivocally ambivalent about unions and education reform and have become more so over the past five years, according to a nationwide survey released here last week by Education Sector.

“This survey shows that, in theory, teachers are open to reforms, but when it comes to their own jobs they’re like, ‘Oh, no—stop,’ ” said Elena Silva, a policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank, during a discussion forum held here to accompany the release. “They’re a little all over the place.”

The report, “Waiting to Be Won Over: Teachers Speak on the Profession, Unions, and Reform,” is based on a survey of about 1,000 randomly selected teachers last fall by the New York City-based Farkas Duffett Research Group. It was a follow-up to a 2003 survey the company conducted for the opinion-research organization Public Agenda.

Views on Unions

On the one hand, according to the latest report, the number of teachers calling unions “absolutely essential” has risen 8 percentage points since 2003, to 54 percent.

On the other hand, the proportion of teachers who agreed that the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse without collective bargaining fell 7 percentage points, to 74 percent, from the 2003 survey.

About half the teachers surveyed said their unions had protected teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. But about the same percentage also said they preferred that their union continue to protect teachers’ jobs and compensation, rather than put more emphasis on student achievement and teacher quality.

There’s a reason for such disconnects, said Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia school system: “There is no one monolithic teacher voice.”

“Reading through the report, I felt like I was kind of reading through my own life right now,” Ms. Rhee said at the forum. She said she gets alternating, conflicting comments from teachers at 27 schools in Washington that are being restructured because of a failure to make adequate yearly progress as required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

One teacher might tell her, “You can’t change anything—this is a good school,” while the next says, “Thank you for doing this—please don’t relent,” the chancellor said.

That variety of opinion also ran through teachers’ attitudes toward the kinds of education reform initiatives that unions are sometimes blamed for blocking.

Among the teachers surveyed, for example, 48 percent said the outstanding teachers at their schools should be especially rewarded. But 40 percent said that although there were outstanding teachers at their schools, their stellar performance shouldn’t be rewarded.

In a telephone interview, National Education Association President Reg Weaver said he had not read the study in depth. The head of the 3.2 million-member union said, however, that “individuals have the right to express themselves,” and said critics should not “paint unions with a broad brush.”

Some Agreement

Still, teachers spoke with greater uniformity on certain topics. Among the teachers surveyed, 80 percent said they favored financial incentives for teachers working in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools—up 10 percentage points since 2003. And 64 percent of teachers opposed the idea of using test scores to measure performance and determine pay—an increase of 8 percentage points over five years ago.

“There is consistent resistance to using standardized tests” to evaluate teachers, said Ann M. Duffett, one of the researchers who conducted the survey, which had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. “You hear their suspicions; they’re not convinced it can be done fairly.”

Amid all the crossfire of opinion, suggested Greg Ahrnsbrak, a teacher and union representative at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School who participated in the forum, teachers need to acknowledge reality.

“Reform is coming,” he said. “It’s like a bus—it’s coming right at us. You’re going to be on it or you’re going to be under it.”

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