Expert opinion

Enrich, upgrade, and invest in the schools we have

by Nancy Flanagan

Look beyond the headlines of the poll and you'll see that Americans have taken a clear look at their public schools and said we can do better.

I live in Michigan, home to two nationally recognized graduate schools in education and a host of fine regional teacher preparation institutions. For years, Michigan produced more teachers than needed — and states lacking teachers were happy to hire the well-trained excess. Although other states have struggled with teacher shortages for a decade or more, we are now seeing deficit numbers crop up in former teacher-exporting states like mine. Wildcat teacher strikes swept across the nation this winter and spring, leaving states with even less veteran teaching talent. Why?

The big news in this year’s 50th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is that an astonishing 78% of public school parents say they would support their community’s teachers in a walkout for higher pay, with two-thirds of them declaring teacher salaries are too low.

While there is strong public support for more money for teachers, for the first time ever most parents (54%) say they would not want their child to become a teacher. The primary reason why not is graphic: Crappy pay.

There are other factors cited — student behavior, for example, and working conditions — but in the end, Americans now seem to understand that teaching, once a middle-class gateway profession for first-generation college graduates, has become devalued in the career marketplace.

What has tipped the balance from "teaching will always be a poorly paid calling for the truly dedicated" to "teachers deserve more respect and more compensation?"

Americans have taken a clear look at their public schools and the important people who teach their children and decided that we can do better.

Perhaps it’s related to another finding: Almost 8 in 10 Americans would rather fix public education than experiment with other options — the highest percentage in two decades. That’s roughly the same window of time that educational "choice" has been heavily promoted by those who see K-12 education as a market opportunity.

Taken together, these poll results could be evidence that Americans are realizing that local investment in public school infrastructure and human capital is a better bet than silver-bullet solutions. For the past 17 years, poll respondents have listed inadequate funding as the biggest problem faced by public schools, contrary to the ever-present market-based argument that money doesn’t really matter when it comes to education. In fact, much of this year’s polling data can be interpreted as corroboration for the idea that Americans still believe in community responsibility for education. Three-quarters of them endorse free tuition at community colleges, and 68% believe federal funding for four-year colleges should increase — perhaps because half of all parents surveyed don’t think they’ll be able to pay the tab on a college degree.

Nor are adults convinced that students are ready for the world of work, after high school. There’s still faith in postsecondary education as the pathway to a better life. A little more than half of adults polled say K-12 students today aren’t getting the job preparation skills they once did — although they believe there is more emphasis on readiness for college, critical thinking, and a more equitable education for all children, no matter what they bring to the table.

Ask parents — those who have firsthand experience with the system — about school quality and those numbers shift, upward. Parents once again give the highest marks to the schools their children attend and save their criticisms for public education in general. They also clearly understand that school success is tied to social capital — that the public education children can expect to receive will depend on their race and ethnicity, their local community, and their family’s resources. As a 30-year veteran teacher and advocate for public education, much of this data is unsurprising to me, including parents’ increasing reluctance to have their children go into teaching (something I’ve heard in the staff room for decades). Fixing the teacher pipeline — recruiting good candidates, continuously improving teacher education and mentoring, adjusting supply and demand, then paying teachers a living wage — is a challenge but doable. And certainly smarter and more effective than tearing down traditional training in favor of two-year "teacher tourism."

It feels like Americans have taken a clear look at their public schools and the important people who teach their children and decided that we can do better: We can pay teachers fairly. We can provide cost-effective paths to career skills in our high schools and community colleges. We can make the system more equitable.

We can — and should — enrich, upgrade, and invest in the schools we have.

Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a veteran teacher leader who regularly writes the Teacher in a Strange Land blog at Education Week. She was Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993.

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