Surveys: Teachers, Public Disagree on School Choice

Published August 18, 2011

Recent surveys of teachers and public opinion on education policies and reform reveal a growing divide between educators and the general public on topics such as merit pay and vouchers. The National Center for Education Information (NCEI) and a joint project by journal Education Next and Harvard University report high job satisfaction among teachers, increased public support for vouchers, and more teachers entering their field through alternative certification programs.

“The views of teachers seem to have shifted over the past years away from the views of the public on several items,” said Martin R. West, an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of three principal investigators for the EdNext/Harvard survey. “That made something that’s always been present in our data even more striking.”

West, William Howell, and Paul Peterson have worked together over the past five years compiling feedback from teachers and various public groups to measure current opinion on education policy.

The survey showed an eight percentage point increase, to 47 percent, in support of vouchers by the American public, while the public’s opinion of merit pay and charter schools hardly shifted, coming in at 47 and 43 percent support, respectively, with roughly a third declaring themselves neutral on the ideas. 

Voucher Support Now Rising
“Since we began administering the survey we’ve pretty much seen a steady decline in support of school vouchers,” West said. “So that was a reversal of a longer-term trend.”

Howell said opinions of charter schools are usually very middle-ground “because there’s a lack of awareness about what charter schools are.” Forty-three percent of the U.S. public support charters, while just 18 percent oppose them. Teachers’ favorable views of charters increased from 39 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2011.

The researchers expected a change in general public opinion in this most recent survey because charter schools have garnered more attention recently, but there was none.

“There have been major initiatives to push charter schools,” Howell said. “Those initiatives may be having an effect in the elite, but it doesn’t appear that the public has been able to make sense of them.”

The EdNext study surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 2,600 U.S. residents between April and May 2011. It found 37 percent of the American public said they pay either “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of attention to education issues, and 54 percent of the affluent and 84 percent of teachers said they do so.

Differences in Teacher Opinion
While public support for school choice has modestly grown, teacher opposition to such reforms has increased. Seventy-two percent of teachers oppose merit pay while only 18 percent support it.. 

“There is a hardening of teacher opposition to the subject,” West said. “Half of the public expresses support for merit pay, so Americans are almost three times as likely to support merit pay as teachers.” 

There has been a less dramatic divergence of opinion about tenure in the Harvard poll. Forty-nine percent of the public oppose teacher tenure while 53 percent of teachers support it. 

The NCEI survey reported marked differences in opinion between public school teachers entering the profession using traditional routes (state certification, teaching degrees) and those employing alternate routes (alternate certification). Sixty-seven percent of traditional-route teachers favored pay based on seniority, whereas just 48 percent of alternative-route teachers did. Only 31 percent of traditional-route teachers favored eliminating teacher tenure, but 52 percent of alternate-route teachers did. 

Frustration with Red Tape 
NCEI President Emily Feistritzer, who directed the organization’s survey and wrote the final report, noted evidence of teacher discontent with government policies that affect them directly. 

“They’re very unhappy with external mandates that they feel interrupt them from being really about the business of teaching,” Feistritzer said.

Despite worried stories in the press about negative attitudes toward teachers and schools, Feistritzer said teachers have “high levels” of satisfaction with their jobs. 

“They like their jobs; they love their students. They generally think that they’re doing a pretty good job and think that the preparation programs they went through are just fine,” she said.

Changing the Teaching Profession
Teachers hired in the last five years report greater satisfaction with teaching and more openness to school reforms than their more experienced peers, Feistritzer said. Newer teachers also expressed more dissatisfaction with current textbooks than did older teachers.

“There are subtleties in the report that really to point to some long-range changes,” Feistritzer said. “I think, in a nutshell, there’s a trend toward a different kind of person coming into teaching. It seems like the people, not the programs, may be the thing that is or will change the teaching profession.”

Both sets of researchers agreed education surveys tend to yield relatively stable results year after year.

“We had expected that all of the attention to the implementation of [new programs] and in general the media’s coverage of education policy issues in Wisconsin, Florida, and other states would lead to some changes in public opinion, but we didn’t see much,” West said.

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