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Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Teachers
New polls shed light on public attitudes toward public schools, declining enthusiasm for teaching profession

Two new national polls provide insights into Americans’ attitudes and perceptions of public education, and provide plenty of fodder for reporters looking for story ideas on the teacher workforce, school choice, and funding priorities.

The easy headline from the new PDK Poll was the shrinking enthusiasm among Americans for their children to become teachers. (See The 74’s take, and similar angles from Education Week and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others). The Washington Post led with “Two in three Americans say public school teachers are underpaid,” and also delved into the dip in public confidence in teachers, although it remains high overall at about 60 percent.

Teaching has respect, lacks prestige

In 2009, seven out of every 10 Americans said they would support their kids becoming teachers, according to PDK. This year it was 46 percent, the lowest level since the question was first asked in 1969. Respondents most frequently cited low pay as a factor, followed by student behavior issues. Heavy workloads, large class sizes and poor working conditions were also mentioned by respondents.

Also, 66 percent of poll respondents said teacher salaries were too low, after being told by the pollsters that the national average starting salary is $39,000 – versus the average salary of more than $59,000.* An even stronger majority of respondents — 73 percent — said they supported teachers striking to secure better pay.

While the spate of teacher strikes in the past 18 months or so weren’t directly referenced, it’s possible those events helped shine a light on the other concerns specifically referenced by the respondents, said Joshua Starr, PDK’s executive director and formerly a schools superintendent.

“The narrative around public education isn’t a positive one at the national level,” Starr told me. “Even though people talk about the importance of (the teaching profession), we also underfund it and spend time bashing teachers, so I think that it may be that we’re seeing some of that in the results in this year’s poll.”

Other key takeaways from the PDK poll:

  • As has been the case for the past 19 years, inadequate funding was cited as the “biggest problem” facing public education, coming in first for 26 percent of the respondents, followed by student discipline and bullying issues, each at 10 percent.
  • Seventy-eight percent of Americans would prefer to improve their neighborhood schools rather than start new ones from scratch.
  • Three-quarters of survey respondents said that black, Hispanic, and rural students have fewer educational opportunities and 55 said those same students are held to lower academic expectations.

A divided nation

This the 50th year of the annual poll of attitudes on public education from Phi Delta Kappan International, a professional association for educators, which was issued this week. (A set of PDK poll data on school safety issues was published earlier this summer.)

Meanwhile, fresh data from a separate education-focused survey offer still more fodder for education reporters. Results came out last week from the 12th annual poll issued by Education Next, a journal published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. (Education Next was previously published by the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution at Stanford University.)

Both polls show substantial divides among respondents to certain questions, often based on political affiliation, race, and socioeconomic status.

The gap was particularly wide on the PDK Poll’s questions related to school safety. Just 16 percent of Democrats prioritized funding for adding armed guards to campuses, compared with 40 percent of Republicans.

In the Education Next poll, there was a 5 percentage-point jump in support for charter schools to 44 percent nationally. But that uptick was almost entirely among Republicans — 57 percent of them support charters — widening the gap with the 36 percent of Democrats who also said they supported the independently operated, publicly funded campuses.

Views about school assignment policies that seek to promote student diversity also were probed in the Education Next poll. The results show a majority of all respondents oppose considering race when assigning students. Likewise, a majority opposed considering income level.

But as Amanda Zhou notes in her solid overview of the Education Next survey for Chalkbeat, the responses varied by race. White respondents were more likely to oppose race-based and income-based assignment policies than their black and Hispanic counterparts. 

Teacher strikes’ impact

There were some overlaps in the two polls’ findings, especially on teacher workforce issues. As with PDK, the Education Next poll found strong support among survey respondents for teacher strikes, reflecting the apparent impact of the recent wave of high-profile walkouts nationally. (See U.S. News’ overview on these data points.) Support for increasing teacher salaries reached its highest point in the poll since 2008, and it was particularly high in the six states where teachers had recently walked out. Education Week’s Madeline Will looked at the influence of question wording on the poll’s respondents:

When (Education Next) respondents were not informed of how much teachers earn, they tended to be more supportive of increasing teacher salaries. Among this segment of respondents, about two-thirds said teachers should get a pay raise. The researchers wrote that this finding shows most Americans believe that teachers are paid much less than they actually are—respondents, when asked to estimate average teacher salaries in their state, made an average guess of $40,181. In reality, the 2016-17 national average salary is $59,660, according to the National Education Association, although that varies widely between states.

Both PDK and Education Next used a representative sampling of American adults in their polling. PDK also breaks out the results by whether respondents are parents of current K-12 students. And while both polls largely keep the same questions from year to year, there are some deviations in order to take the public’s pulse on hot-button issues.

In the past, Education Next asked respondents whether only poor students should be allowed to receive public dollars to subsidize tuition at private schools or if it should be a universal option, regardless of family income. This year, the survey asked four questions around private school choice: Two used the term “voucher,” and two replaced that with the phrase “wider choice.” When “voucher” was used, support for allowing all families the option of public dollars for private education dropped by 10 percentage points. (Education Week’s Arianna Prothero has more on this angle.) 

That being said, overall support for school choice remains high, said Martin West, a Harvard professor of education and the co-editor of Education Next. It’s a good reminder to reporters not to cherry-pick a single number out of the results but to consider the findings in context, said West, who at one time was a senior education adviser to Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Another caveat: Polls are a snapshot of a moment in time. People who agree to participate are often asked to weigh in on complex topics with little or no background information, and no guarantee that they are otherwise informed on the topic.

At the same time, polls can be useful for a quick glance at public perceptions on key education issues. And they can be a useful launching pad for policy conversations, which is how both West and Starr say they hope the public and the press will use them.

*This paragraph has been updated to include the average teacher salary.



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