Blog: The Educated Reporter

Gallup Poll To Teachers: They Like You! They Really Like You!

Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, was at a back-to-school event near Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday when a special education teacher approached with tears in her eyes and asked: “Why are they being so mean to us?”

The “they,” said Eskelsen, was a combination of unflattering news reports about struggling schools, a blitz of documentaries seen as unfairly blaming teachers for lackluster student achievement, and politicians who seem more interested in pursuing their own agendas than addressing challenges facing public education.

Eskelsen told me she did her best to reassure the Ohio teacher, although in hindsight she wishes she could have shared a particularly heartening piece of information: For a third consecutive year, 71 percent of Americans participating in a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on education issues said they had confidence in the abilities of public school teachers.

The poll, published Wednesday, surveyed 1,002 adults in telephone interviews in May and June, and then weighted their responses so that they reflected the nation’s demographic profile. For more on the findings, click here.

“There may be some individuals who, for their own purposes, want to say teachers can’t be trusted — but people know better,” Eskelsen told me. “Most people do appreciate the work that teachers do.”

William Bushaw, co-director of the poll, says that confidence statistic is one he tries to emphasize when he meets with education groups and organizations throughout the year. “When I talk to educators, they don’t accept that (statistic) – they feel like they’re under attack,” Bushaw said. “But clearly Americans like teachers. I tell them, `They have a lot of questions about the larger organization, but they respect and trust what you do in the classroom.’”

The poll does indicate Americans have significant concerns about the quality of the nation’s public schools, particularly whether high school graduates are prepared to succeed in college. At the same time, the responses also suggest Americans want a high-quality teacher workforce. About a third of respondents thought the entrance requirements for teacher preparation programs should be more selective than those for business, law and medicine. (Raising the standards for teacher education is a front-burner issue for policymakers nationally. For more on that issue, click here.)

There were some unexpected changes in this year’s Gallup poll: For the first time in four years, public support for charter schools dropped, to 66 percent this year from 70 percent in 2011. While that might be a decline, Nina Rees, chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, emphasized to me that the public was still in favor by a 2:1 margin. She also noted that the margin of error for the poll is +/- 4 percent, so it’s possible the level of support stayed the same. (The cynical statistician in me also has to point out that margin could also mean support has fallen even further.)

Rees argues that families are “demonstrating their support with their feet.” Charter school enrollment has doubled in the past five years, with more than 2 million students enrolled and another estimated 600,000 on waiting lists.

For Bushaw, the surprise in the poll’s findings had to do with what he characterized as “lukewarm support” for using student test scores as part of the process for evaluating teacher job performance. Just over half of the poll respondents said they favored using student test scores as a factor.

“We’re focusing a lot of energy right now into how to incorporate standardized test scores into teacher evaluations – there wasn’t as much support (in the poll) given the resources we’re putting into it,” Bushaw said.

Those findings aren’t surprising given the blizzard of public discourse underway on the topic of using standardized tests in evaluations, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. No Child Left Behind has created a stigma around using standardized testing to measure whether a school is judged as successful or failing, Jacobs said, and that stigma has now attached itself to the issue of teacher evaluations.

“Plenty of people think there are evaluation systems being put up all over the country that are structured so that one test that decides a teacher’s future, even though that model doesn’t exist anywhere,” said Jacobs, whose organization is tracking new policies on teacher evaluations nationwide.

While the Gallup question was worded fairly, Jacobs said, she wasn’t sure it conveyed the idea that standardized tests could be used in a way that would measure a student’s academic growth, rather than just taking a snapshot of their performance at a single point in time. That can be tough to do in a telephone poll.

“The rhetoric has been really heated around this conversation in many places,” Jacobs said. “When you hear that teachers are against what’s being proposed without knowing or understanding the complexities of the system, it’s not hard to understand why a person might conclude this is not a good idea.”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.