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Teachers vs. the Public on K-12 Education: Scratching the Surface

Earlier today one of my Education Policy Center friends got to watch most of an online telecast of a panel discussion titled Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them. One of the co-authors of a recently released book by the same name, Dr. Paul Peterson, led the discussion.

The book and the discussion are essentially a reflection on some of the more interesting results like those released in the 2013 Harvard/Education Next survey. Many months ago I offered readers some examples of how this poll cast skepticism on the findings of the more widely touted PDK/Gallup education survey.

But the topic of today’s discussion and the new book (a tantalizing excerpt of which was featured in the Wall Street Journal) highlights a significant number of disparate opinions on education issues between those employed in K-12 classrooms on one hand and John and Jane Q. Citizen on the other. Peterson says these represent the biggest differences captured between any two groups in the survey, including the following examples:

  • Only 20 percent of the public gives the nation’s schools an A or B grade, compared to 32 percent of teachers
  • When it comes to assessments of local schools, the numbers predictably rise to 44 percent and 62 percent, respectively
  • On the issue of using value-added measures of student learning for teacher pay, 66 percent generally profess support versus 16 percent from teachers
  • Fifty-seven percent of the public say teachers unions are more harmful to education, compared to about one-third of teachers themselves
  • About half of teachers give a thumbs-up both to charter schools and scholarship tax credits, while support rises to a little over 70 percent among the general public

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Of course, just because one group or another thinks something is popular does not justify doing it. My mom tells me something similar about jumping off bridges; my dad says, “If everybody was becoming a Chicago Cubs fan, would you do it?” That gives some pause.

But by the same token, when leaders at any level — school, district, or state — are crafting policies, they shouldn’t just ignore widely held opinions. Either of the general public who elects some of those leaders, or of the teachers who tend to play attention more closely because their livelihood is affected.

Policymakers and other leaders don’t necessarily need to surrender to a popular view within either group, but they have to understand where people are coming from to make their case more effectively and to prepare for the real impacts of any major changes.

It’s all intriguing enough to make me want to go out and pick up a copy of the book. There we could dig a little deeper into the material and help inform ourselves concerning thoughtful development of policy prescriptions and strategies. Because this post has just scratched the surface of an important conversation that ought to continue.