Teaching Profession

Poll: Americans Trust Teachers, Split on Teachers’ Unions

Nearly half the public say the labor groups have hurt education
By Alexandra Rice — August 17, 2011 4 min read
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Governors and teachers’ unions are going head-to-head in several states across the country, and the public feels caught in the middle, a new survey on the public’s perception of U.S. schools finds.

When those polled were asked how teachers’ unions have affected the quality of public education, 47 percent said unions hurt it. But even so, 52 percent said they side with unions in disputes with governors over collective bargaining.

This year’s annual poll by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Washington-based Gallup organization, released last week, digs deep into the issues surrounding teachers, including unions, salaries, hiring/firing practices, and curriculum flexibility.

In a statement on the poll results, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten highlighted the public’s siding with unions over governors. But she, like others weighing in on the survey, expressed concerns about the way questions regarding the unions were phrased. William J. Bushaw, the executive director of PDK, which is based in Bloomington, Ind., addressed those concerns in a conference call with reporters.

“Whenever we want to use or show longitudinal change, we absolutely have to ask the question in the same way it was asked originally,” Mr. Bushaw said.

Job Review on Teachers

How important do you think each of the following factors should be in determining a public school teacher’s salary: level of academic degree earned, years of teaching experience, scores the teacher’s students receive on standardized tests, evaluations conducted by the principal?

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: 2011 PDK/Gallup Poll

In 1976 and in 2011, the question was phrased: “Has unionization, in your opinion, helped, hurt, or made no difference in the quality of public school education in the United States?” Back in 1976, a smaller percentage of those polled, 38 percent, felt that unions hurt education, compared with today. Teachers’ unions were also far less influential then, and a much higher percentage of people polled said they were undecided on the issue of how the unions affect education. In 1976, 13 percent didn’t have a strong opinion on teachers unions’ impact on education quality, while today only 2 percent didn’t know or refused to say where they stood with regard to them.

Barnett Berry, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Teaching Quality, based in Carrboro, N.C., said it was not surprising how the public feels about teachers’ unions, given that both unions and policymakers are locked in a 20th-century debate over education while the public is waiting for 21st-century education reform. But the unions and their state and local affiliates, he said, are not all the same, and they can do bad as well as good.

“The unions are not monolithic in this country, and there are a number of them, though not enough, that are the harbinger of reform,” Mr. Berry said.

The poll was conducted June 4-13, using a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults, ages 18 and older. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.

Recruitment and Investment

Looking past the unions to the individuals themselves, the survey shows the public has a generally positive view of teachers. Nearly three out of four of those surveyed said they had confidence and trust in teachers today, and two out of three said they would be in favor of their child becoming a public school teacher. It wasn’t just their own children they wanted to become teachers—they wanted the highest-achieving high school students to be recruited for the classroom.

“It’s clear that Americans recognize the importance of getting quality students to become the next generation of teachers,” the PDK’s Mr. Bushaw said.

The poll points out some of the areas where current policy and public opinion don’t match up, said Thomas Toch, the co-founder of the Education Sector think tank and the currrent executive director of Independent Education, a Washington-area private school consortium.

According to the survey, the public wants to find and retain the highest-quality teachers, and it wants to compensate them based on a number of factors, with student test scores being the least important.

Experience, academic degree, and principal evaluations all ranked higher than test scores in the survey. Merit-pay, an important element of the Obama administration’s education agenda, calls for great emphasis on student test scores when determining teachers’ salaries.

“This poll today shows a much more sophisticated public that is willing and ready to invest in teachers,” Mr. Berry said.

Despite the discrepancy between the opinions of public and federal officials over merit-pay policies, the public’s rating of President Barack Obama’s performance in support of public schools shot up 7 points from last year. (“Fewer Americans Back Obama’s Education Programs,” August 25, 2010.) This year, 41 percent of the survey’s respondents gave the president an A or B, with most votes falling along party lines.

Mr. Toch of Education Sector said the finding shows people are looking less at what the president has done and more at who he is. Only 2 percent of Republicans gave him an A, even though many of his initiatives, such as merit pay and charter schools, are reforms long embraced by their party, Mr. Toch said.

The administration has also taken strong stances on the issues of school choice and private school vouchers. While vouchers continue to lose popularity among those polled, approval of school choice in general and charters has steadily climbed. The survey results show that 70 percent of Americans approve of charters, capping a 10-year-long upward trend.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Poll Finds Americans Trust Teachers, Divided on Unions

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