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What Americans Say About...

Frustration in the schools

Broad discontent leads half of teachers to consider quitting their jobs.

Frustrated by poor pay and underfunded schools, half of public school teachers nationally have seriously considered leaving the profession in the past few years — and majorities in the 2019 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools say that given the opportunity, they’d vote to strike.

Were it to happen, large majorities of parents and the general public say they’d lend support.

Pay the teachers more. That recruits better teachers. Teachers are the backbone of a good education.

Deanna, 42, Hispanic mother of two in rural Colorado

In other results, Americans continue to express their concern about the lack of financial support for the public schools, naming this as the biggest problem facing their local schools for the 18th consecutive year. Sixty percent say schools have too little money, with even a majority of more affluent Americans saying the public schools in their community are underfunded. Although they’re not ready to raise taxes to solve this problem, Americans are ready to vote for candidates who will support greater funding for public schools. They also support using revenue from state lotteries, legal recreational marijuana, and sports gambling to beef up school coffers.

Most parents and teachers also want schools to require students to study civics and say public schools should offer Bible studies classes as electives. They also see mediation and counseling as more effective than detention and suspension when it comes to dealing with misbehaving students.

Now in its 51st year, the PDK poll includes a random national sample of public school teachers for the first time since 2000, adding their voices to those of parents and the general public on crucial issues in public education. (Read more about who is teaching in today's classrooms.)

Results paint a portrait of broad teacher discontent:

• 60% of teachers say they’re unfairly paid, and 55% say they’d vote to go on strike for higher pay. Among those earning less than $45,000 annually — more than 1 in 4 teachers — support for a pay strike jumps to 67%.

This is a smoke-and-mirror situation with the community respecting teachers. The community, politicians, people in general say they love and admire teachers, but they are not willing to increase teachers’ pay.

Jean, 60, mixed-race high school teacher in suburban Delaware

• Pay isn’t the only concern. Seventy-five percent of teachers say the schools in their community are underfunded. Fifty-eight percent say they’d vote to strike for higher funding for school programs, and 52% say they’d vote to strike for greater teacher say in academic policies on standards, testing, and the curriculum.

• Parents and the public overall stand with them; 74% of parents and 71% of all adults say they would support a strike by teachers in their community for higher pay. Even more — 83% of parents and 79% of all adults — say they’d support teachers striking for a greater voice in academic policies. Similarly high percentages of teachers say they would support teachers in their own communities if they went on strike for any of these reasons.

2019 Would Vote Strike For

• As noted, half of teachers also say they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession in recent years. That rises to 62% among teachers who feel undervalued by their community, who say their pay is unfair, or who earn less than $45,000 annually. Having considered quitting also peaks among high school teachers, at 61% vs. 48% in the lower grades.

• A majority of teachers — 55% — would not want their child to follow them into the profession, chiefly citing inadequate pay and benefits, job stress, and feeling disrespected or undervalued. The result matches a PDK poll finding in 2018 in which a nearly identical 54% of all adults said they wouldn’t want their child to become a public school teacher, a majority for the first time since the PDK poll began asking the question in 1969. Poor pay and benefits topped the list of reasons.

This year’s survey finds many other shared views among teachers, parents, and the general public but also some sharp differences. Most strikingly, while 29% of parents see pressure to do well on tests as a problem, this soars to 50% among teachers. Teachers also are especially likely to say the public schools in their community are underfunded, although this view is held by majorities across these groups — 75% of teachers, 61% of parents, and 60% of all adults.

School is one of the more important topics in our society. Without a good education and base for growing into a capable adult, we have nothing to offer for our future. If we invest in our kids, we are investing in our future. It's not only imperative for them to have access to a variety of classes and career opportunities, they also need to have access to great teachers who care. And that means compensating them fairly for what may be one of the hardest jobs out there.

Lindsey, 41, mixed-race mother of five in Oregon suburb

In another gap, teachers are more apt than parents or the general public to identify teaching citizenship, as opposed to academics or workforce preparation, as the chief aim of public education. A plurality of teachers — 45% — views preparing students to be good citizens as the schools’ main goal, compared with 28% of parents and 25% of all adults. (Teachers also are especially apt to favor requiring students to take a civics course.)

Parents and the general public instead give top priority to preparing students academically. That said, there’s broad preference across groups for both job and academic preparation, not just one or the other.

Teachers and parents also part ways, to some extent, when it comes to state-issued report cards on school quality. Just half of teachers say these reports accurately represent the quality of schools; that rises to 64% among parents. (Like teachers, the general public is more skeptical but also much less familiar with these report cards.)

Supported by grants from the PDK Educational Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the national survey was produced for PDK International, the professional association for educators, by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y. Interviews were conducted April 12-27, 2019, among a random national sample of 2,389 adults age 18 and up, including oversamples to a total of 1,083 parents of school-age children and 556 public school teachers. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish via the probability-based Ipsos KnowledgePanel®, in which participants are randomly recruited via address-based sampling to take surveys online.

This year’s PDK study also includes a qualitative component. Fifteen public school teachers and 15 public school parents from across the country participated in a five-day online forum, answering open-ended questions on the survey's topics and responding to one another's comments. Responses from those focus groups are found throughout this report and also in our Perspectives section of this web site.

The study is wide-ranging, covering issues including school discipline; state-issued school report cards and other means of assessing school quality; school funding; civics, values, and religious studies in the curriculum, and attitudes toward workforce development classes. All are detailed in the sections that follow.

The survey also includes the PDK poll’s traditional letter grades for the public schools locally and nationally, with a positive result: This year, 76% of parents give an A or B grade to their own child’s school, up from 70% last year.

Key points

Does religious study belong in public schools?

Majorities say schools should offer classes in Bible studies and comparative religions, with small percentages of Americans saying they should be required. Evangelical Christians are the most supportive of offering Bible studies in schools and the most concerned that comparative religion courses could cause their child to question their family’s faith.

How should public schools handle discipline?

About half of parents and two-thirds of teachers say school discipline is not strict enough. Americans endorse the concept of zero tolerance but offer less support when presented with practical application of such policies. Adults prefer mediation over detention or suspension when dealing with student misbehavior.

Should students study civics?

Most Americans say students should be required to study civics in schools. Only a minority of parents worry that civics classes might include political content they disagree with; even fewer teachers share that concern.

How do you assess school quality?

Nearly all teachers (94%) say the better way to assess a school’s quality is to look at the improvement its students show over time, rather than the percentage of students who pass a standardized state test at any given time. Majorities of parents and all adults agree — 77% and 75%, respectively.

How much should schools focus on workforce preparation?

Preparing a student for the workplace isn’t the main purpose of a public school education, but a plurality of parents (45%) would still like to have their child enroll in a job skills course in high school rather than an advanced academic class or an arts or music course.

Are schools adequately funded?

Most adults, in general, parents and teachers say their local schools have too little money; black Americans are especially likely to believe this. Even a majority of the most affluent Americans say their schools are underfunded. Americans name lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing public schools in their community for the 18th consecutive year.

How do you rate problems and pressures?

Half of teachers see pressure to do well on tests as a big problem, compared with about three in 10 parents. Teachers are slightly more likely than parents to perceive the pressure to conform as a problem at school. Both groups rate racism, religious bias, and bias toward gay, lesbian, and/or transgender students as relatively small problems.

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