For more than four decades and counting, the professional organization for educators, Phi Delta Kappa, has conducted an extensive annual survey of public attitudes towards education.
Given that my "day job" is as a secondary school teacher, I always check out the PDK poll (conducted by Gallup this past June) with a great deal of interest. This year, however, that level of interest was even further piqued, given the war on teachers being waged in GOP-controlled states across the country, and (to a lesser extent) in the traditional media.
Would the relentless teacher-bashing being offered up by Republican politicos, and their enablers in the media, actually move public opinion? As I wrote in March:
The question now becomes whether the GOP assault on teachers unions will be accepted by a voting public convinced of a crisis and willing to take dramatic measures in the name of a solution (whether the policies in question offer a solution is a topic for another day). In contrast, it may well be condemned as a drastic overreach for which the Republicans will pay a dear price politically down the line.
And, as the students begin to head back to school across the country, along comes the PDK/Gallup survey to offer us some clues to answering that question.
Unambiguous conclusions, however, are frustratingly difficult to come by here. There is little question that the relentless assault on public education by the GOP (and many in the press) has softened popular esteem for our public schools. However, the public is not nearly as panicked about the state of their schools as the media and political elites would apparently like us to believe.
However, the public embraces their local public schools, implying that the slackening public esteem for the schools nationally is based more on pessimistic public conversation than actual personal experience. Furthermore, even ceaseless union bashing, while it has hurt the standing of teachers unions in the public eye, have not led voters to prefer the approaches of their local politicians.
THE PUBLIC'S REPORT CARD: WHAT I SEE vs. WHAT I HEAR
One of the annual features of the PDK/Gallup education survey is the opportunity for respondents to offer a "traditional" letter grade to a number of facets of public education. In that trove of data, a very telling discrepancy can be found. Check out how the public views the public schools attended by their children, versus how they view American schools in general. In addition, compare those numbers to the results from 2007, which can be found in parentheses.
Students are often given the grades A, B, C, D, and Fail to denote the quality of their work. Suppose the public schools themselves in your community were graded in the same way. What grade would you give the public schools here — A, B, C, D, or Fail?
A or B: 51 (45)
D or Fail: 16 (19)
How about the public schools in the nation as a whole? What grade would you give the public schools nationally — A, B, C, D, or Fail?
A or B: 17 (16)
D or Fail: 30 (23)
Using the A, B, C, D, and Fail scale again, what grade would you give the school your oldest child attends?
A or B: 79 (67)
D or Fail: 4 (8)
Stunning. The closer Americans are to their public schools, the more they embrace them. Few public institutions can match the +75 favorability spread that public schools receive from those folks that have children in public schools. That figure, incidentally, also lays waste to the oft-repeated notion that there is a critical mass of parents out there frustrated by their hideous public schools. Only one-in-25 would offer a grade of "D" or "F" to their kid's school.
But the public esteem for local schools goes beyond the "be true to your school" pride often felt by parents. When non-parents are factored in (by asking about community public education), the approval marks remained quite robust (a +35 spread).
However, check out how mediocre our perceptions of public education in general become. Parents closest to the front offer 79% approval, but when asked about education in general, that figure drops to a paltry 17%. Furthermore, the "D/F" rate explodes from 4% up to 30%.
Part of this, no doubt, can be attributed to a better working knowledge of neighborhood schools than schools in other cities and states. But a big part of the puzzle has to be the relentlessly negative ways in which American public education are portrayed in both traditional media outlets and contemporary political debate.
The public seems to understand this, to an extent. Respondents, by a 68-29 margin, reported that they were more likely to hear "bad stories" about teachers in the news media, as opposed to "good stories." However, even if the public understands the diet of pessimism being offered to them, the numbers on the public perceptions of education hint strongly that the incessant negativity is extracting its pound of flesh.
LOVE THE TEACHER, HATE THE UNION?
A dichotomy that has long proved fascinating is the chasm people are eager to forge between "teachers" and "teachers unions." During a contract dispute early in my teaching career, I had a parent assure me that she adored her child's teachers, but she simply could not stand "the teachers union." The idea that a teachers union is made up solely of...y'know...teachers was a fact that was lost on her and myriad others.
This, clearly, is a chasm shared by a nation. A total of 71% of Americans have confidence in the teachers that occupy their public schools (versus just 27% that do not). That is unchanged from last year. However, public opinions of teachers unions have endured a modest-but-clear slide. A generation ago, 38% of Americans thought teachers unions hurt the quality of American public education. Today, that number is up to 47%.
However, before Republican politicos do a Snoopy Dance and rush to strip teachers of even more rights, there is a cautionary note in the data for the right wing. The number of Americans who say that unions have helped the quality of American public education has also incrementally increased (from 22% in 1976 to 26% today).
Furthermore, the PDK/Gallup people had the foresight to ask people who they sided with in the educational wars this year between (almost uniformly Republican) governors and teachers unions. The majority of Americans (52%) sided with the unions, versus just 44% who sided with the governors.
That result is somewhat surprising, and heartening. The assault on teachers unions has never been so fierce, and come from so many corners (most recently by Steven Brill). That voters still trust educators over their political foes either confirms that voters still have a reservoir of goodwill for teaching professionals, or confirms how unbelievably unpopular Republican governors are right now. Most likely, it is a little bit of both.
By and large, while it is but a single instrument of measurement, the data from the 2011 incarnation of the PDK/Gallup poll has to be pretty heartening for America's teachers. Most folks still consider it an honorable profession (two-thirds of Americans would want their children to become teachers, little changed from previous years). More Americans than ever understand that lack of funding is the biggest crisis facing American public schools. Support for publicly funded vouchers for public schools has cratered (down to 34%).
What this means is that those politicians who should have the backs of their public school teachers can feel empowered to repel the wide array of legislative measures currently seeking to take a sledgehammer to the professional rights of public school teachers.
For now, the public remains on their side.