News: CJ Exclusives

Public, Teachers Differ on Education Reforms

Survey shows varying views on choice, performance pay

A nationwide education survey conducted by Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance demonstrates how differently the general public and educators view education policy issues. According to the survey, viewpoints differ sharply in the area of school reform.

Despite the controversies surrounding charter schools, public opinion of these alternative public schools changed little from 2010 to 2011. In both years, the general public supported charter schools by roughly a 2-to-1 margin, while teachers were only slightly more likely to favor charters than oppose them. Meantime, public support for school vouchers increased by 8 percentage points over the past year; 39 percent favored vouchers in 2011, up from 31 percent in 2010. This year, 38 percent of the general public opposed vouchers, down from 43 percent the previous year. In both 2010 and 2011, a majority of teachers opposed vouchers (56 percent and 54 percent, respectively).

Another divergence can be found between the attitudes of the public and teachers on tenure. Public opposition to tenure rose slightly, from 47 percent in 2010 to 49 percent this year. In addition, 55 percent of the public say that if tenure if offered at all, it should be based to some degree on measurable improvements in student performance.

Meantime, tenure has become more popular than ever among teachers: 53 percent support tenure, up from 48 percent last year; only 30 percent believe that tenure should depend on classroom performance.

A solid plurality of the public (47 percent to 27 percent) also is keen on the idea of merit pay for teachers — a policy only 18 percent of teachers support.

William Howell, professor of American politics at the University of Chicago, is one of the survey’s authors. Howell said there are two ways to look at the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm over school accountability issues. First, he said merit-based or performance-based pay has the potential of making a teacher’s job more difficult and more unattractive, as it would require teachers to put in more work before they earned higher salaries. He said teachers also might be leery of pay-for-performance because more attention would be paid to what they are doing in the classroom.

“They don’t want a watchful eye or harder work,” he said. “All of this makes them less enthusiastic about reforms.”

Howell also suggested that teachers could balk at changes that standardize classroom operations (including objective performance measurements) because they know the true potential of their students. “They have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t in the classroom,” he said. “They may think [these policies] won’t benefit them in the long run.”

Howell said one of the most enlightening aspects of the survey is the wide chasm between how the general public and professional educators view public education. This is the fifth year the survey on public education issues was conducted. Howell said one of the goals of the survey is to raise awareness about education policies.

Howell said Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution, is continuing to work to improve the survey questions to get the clearest answers from participants.

The entire results of this year’s survey can be found online here (PDF download).

Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.