2017 Josh Poll 2017 Column 3 900Px
Expert opinion

School critics are ignoring the public

by James Harvey

When parents say they don't want their child to become a teacher, that's an alarm bell ringing in the night, and it requires attention.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of public opinion polling. But in the mass of detail in the 50th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward The Public School, three conclusions are inescapable: The public does not agree with many of the criticisms leveled at public education by think tanks and public officials. The public’s respect for teachers is well-nigh overwhelming, but parents see the profession as undervalued. And the closer individuals get to a real school, the more they like what they see.

Let’s take a look at what the definitive public opinion survey of public education for the past 50 years says about each of these.

Crosstalk: The public and the critics

Critics like to claim public schools have plenty of money and they are misspending it, while standards are low, political correctness has run amok, and teacher unions belong on a list of public enemies. The sky is falling. Indeed, the system is so bad we need alternatives.

The general public doesn't agree. Lack of money tops the list of the "biggest problems facing the public schools" (26%). That's five times the rate of concern expressed about standards and the quality of education (5%). Meanwhile, just 2% of respondents list funds mismanagement as a biggest problem. Political correctness also lags behind in the assessment of biggest problems. Here, too, just 2% list this as an issue. What about teacher unions, the critics’ favorite whipping boy? Unions are a nonproblem as far as the general public is concerned. Just 1% of respondents — that's right, 1% — list teacher unions among the "biggest problems facing the public schools." Find alternatives to the current system? That's a losing proposition among more than three-quarters of the 1,042 adults sampled. Fully 78% favor "reforming the public school system" over "finding an alternative."

The findings in this latest PDK poll should be understood in the context of an online poll of 3,000 Americans completed by Teachers College earlier this summer: nearly 60% of respondents judged teachers as "most knowledgeable" about school issues, a standard met by fewer than 10% of think tank experts, business leaders, or politicians.

The public seems to have this message for policy makers: Forget about the unions and finding alternatives. Instead, worry about money and the system we have.

Respect for teachers and dwindling appeal

There's a deeply troubling finding in this latest poll. Americans trust and support teachers, but they draw the line at wanting their children to join the profession. They see the profession as undervalued and underpaid.

That may not be surprising in a poll conducted during three weeks in May amidst nationally publicized strikes and reports of teachers spending their own money on supplies while going without pay raises for years. Two-thirds of respondents say teachers are underpaid. Fully 78% of public school parents would support their local teachers if they went on strike for more pay. And while 61% of respondents report they have "trust and confidence in public school teachers," more than half (54%) say they would not "like to have your child take up teaching in the public schools."

That's an alarm bell ringing in the night that needs attention. A majority of respondents report they would not want their children to enter a profession they otherwise hold in high regard. A separate poll released recently from the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education found that enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined by 23% since 2008. After decades of bashing teachers, the chickens seem to be coming home to roost.

Grading the schools

Finally, a long-standing trend in the PDK poll is confirmed in this latest one. The closer people are to a real public school, the more impressed they are with what they see.

Here’s how adults responded when PDK asked them to grade the schools. How many gave an A or B to the following type of school?

  • My oldest child's school, 70%
  • Local public schools, 43%
  • Public schools nationally, 19%

There’s lots more to chew over in this latest poll — on school schedules, school safety, community colleges, the value of a college degree, opportunities and expectations for students in low-income versus well-off communities, opportunities and expectations for students of color.

But the wake-up calls in this latest PDK poll are disturbing: The critics aren’t listening to parents or the public. Meanwhile, their misbegotten attacks on educators, teachers, and unions are now visibly undermining the teaching profession that is so central to the future health and strength of the United States.

James Harvey

James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

Share this perspective: