The latest Harris Poll finds that Americans believe teacher performance and a positive school atmosphere are the keys to improving student academic achievement. The survey, conducted prior to the Chicago public school teachers strike, found 72% of respondents perceive recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers as very important for improving student performance. A majority (64%) expressed the same opinion about the importance of a positive school atmosphere in relation to academic achievement. Ranked somewhat less important were increasing students’ (49%), teachers’ (46%) and parents’ (43%) satisfaction levels.
The Harris Poll also found:
Americans without college degrees (53%) are more likely than those with a degree (39%) to see increasing students' satisfaction with their schools as very important; they are also more likely to rate parental satisfaction with their children's schools as very important (47% and 33%, respectively).
Americans earning under $35,000 also place higher importance on school satisfaction than their counterparts, being more likely than those earning $35,000 or more to rate student (55% vs. 44%), teacher (52% vs. 43%) and parent (51% vs. 39%) satisfaction very important.
The status of the teaching profession is attracting more attention these days as states move to implement teacher evaluations and the Chicago strike is fresh in the memory of the public. The new emphasis on teacher “effectiveness” is a challenge to the status quo and has bristled unions across the country. The Obama administration, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has also embraced the “effective teacher” mantra, moving away from the long-held view that teachers simply need to be “qualified.” The Harris poll seems to confirm that the public is also on board with this shift of emphasis on placing the most effective teachers in the classroom. A majority of respondents (73%) strongly support enabling schools to more easily remove ineffective teachers and 59% support basing teacher effectiveness measures on evidence of student growth. Still, the public supports teachers as indicated by 55% of the poll respondents supporting better professional development for teachers and 51% view improving teachers’ compensation.
When the issues affecting teacher effectiveness were narrowed down, and poll takers were presented with a situation where only one idea could be funded; 43% chose giving schools the flexibility to fire ineffective teachers as the top priority. The next most popular option (21%) was basing the measurement of teacher effectiveness on student academic growth. Noteworthy is that the most popular option was favored among older (age 67+) respondents and received less support among Democrats (33%) and parents (36%), while favored among Republicans (53%) and respondents without children (45%) in grades K-12.
The poll also reveals that Americans perceive teachers (46% of respondents) and public schools (50% of respondents) in their community as receiving too little funding. However, opinions diverged among respondents depending upon their situation.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to view both teacher pay (56% vs. 39%) and school funding (63% vs. 39%) as too low. Independents consistently fall between the two parties, though their responses on this matter skew closer to Republican viewpoints.
Parents (57%) are significantly more likely than adults without children in grades K-12 (48%) to rate overall school funding as too low.
Females are more likely than males to rate both teacher pay (52% vs. 40%) and school funding (54% vs. 46%) as too low.
Adults in the South are more likely than those in any other region to perceive teacher pay as too low (31% East, 43% Midwest, 57% South, 48% West).
The perception of teachers as under-paid (46%) is closer to its 1965 level (42%) than in either 2009 (54%) or 2008 (59%), though the perception of teachers as over-paid (12%) – while small – is at its highest point on record. The perception of schools as under-funded continues to be well above 1965 levels (50% 2012, 51% 2009, 57% 2008, 32% 1965).
As states continue to push education reform, the matter of teacher effectiveness will likely be a centerpiece of those efforts and how to measure teacher performance will be a hot button issue and a point of contention between unions and district leadership. Teachers continue to enjoy public support but parents are increasingly voicing frustration over student performance and in-school environments. While the poll suggests some hesitation in giving schools the flexibility to terminate ineffective teachers, those sentiment might likely change if teachers win concessions on pay and tenure. At some point self-interest will likely kick-in and the public, parents in particular, might begin taking a harder line stand in regard to the performance of teachers. If unions are perceived to protect bad teachers, the public’s attitudes could shift toward giving principals greater leeway in making school-based personnel decisions.