During a year of turmoil, layoffs and wrangling over the hiring and firing of teachers, American appreciation for teachers reached an all-time high -- while opinions on their unions and the nation's schools hit an all-time low, according to a new survey released Wednesday.
The 43rd annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the "public's attitude toward the public schools" asked about 1,000 people questions on hot-button education issues such as charter schools, voucher programs and teacher quality.
It found that three of four Americans have "trust and confidence in public school teachers," with an even higher rate of trust among public school parents, college-educated respondents and those younger than 40 years old. Three out of four respondents indicated they believe teachers should have more flexibility over their own lessons. But despite this trust in teachers, 52 percent of respondents said they think their "public school system has a hard time getting good teachers." Sixty-eight percent of respondents answered that they heard more "bad stories about teachers" than good ones in the media.
The report shows that the movement known as education reform, which focuses on teacher effectiveness and has been bolstered by films such as "Waiting for Superman" and the recent book by Steven Brill, "Class Warfare: Inside the War to Fix America's Schools," has struck a chord with the public. Three in four Americans said they believe that teacher quality, more than class size, is the key to bolstering America's public schools. This belief is the underpinning of recently-passed state laws that change the way teachers are hired and fired, connect teacher evaluations to student test scores and institute systems that give bonuses to teachers for high student performance on standardized exams.
"It does seem to me that the public has gotten behind the sorts of reforms that are being pursued within the teaching profession," Tom Toch, co-founder of the think tank Education Sector, said on a conference call with reporters to mark the paper's release.
Respondents' views aligned with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's articulated -- though vague -- push to improve teacher quality. The survey found that three quarters of Americans support recruiting high school students who perform well in school to become teachers and getting them to encourage their brightest acquaintances to do the same. Two in three respondents signaled that they thought teacher effectiveness stemmed more from innate talent than from training programs or graduate school credentials.
Most respondents said they believe that teachers should be measured by multiple barometers of effectiveness, as opposed to being managed merely in order of seniority. They indicated that principal evaluations should be given the most weight within teacher reviews.
The survey did not ask about Americans' perceptions of the effects of poverty on student achievement, often a topic of debate among reformers and teachers unions. While no one claims that poverty does not have an effect on achievement, critics of the reform movement say that grading teachers by their students' test scores does not take into account varying life circumstances.
Half of respondents signaled they thought unions were hurting public education, but still said they're more likely to side with teachers unions than governors in disputes over collective bargaining like those in Wisconsin.
Forty-seven percent of respondents said they thought unions have hurt "the quality of public school education in the United states." This is the first time since 1976 that the survey has asked the question, which described unions as groups "that bargain over salaries, working conditions, and the like." In the last 37 years, the number has increased by nine percent, although opinion is highly correlated with political party affiliation.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, took issue with the wording of the question. "It asks about general opinions on teacher unions, framed in a way that implies union work is limited to narrow issues of compensation and working conditions," Weingarten wrote in a statement. "The wording doesn't reflect the current work of the AFT and our quality education agenda, which focuses on what students need to succeed and what their teachers need to facilitate success."
Survey administrators said they used the language of the 1976 question without changing it in order to accurately detect changes in opinion. "We found the question we asked over 30 years ago and felt it was valuable enough to compare the results back then," William Bushaw, PDK's executive director, said on the call.
"Unions have lost the battle in the court of public opinion over the need for reform in the teaching profession," Toch said. "At the same time, unions are pervasive and thus have the ability to leverage change on a very large scale if they are brought into the conversation."
Bushaw said that the role of unions is complicated. "Americans think that the teachers' unions are protecting bad teachers," he said. "Union leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place: they need to fight this perception that they're protecting bad teachers but they still need to work to get the ... best working conditions for teachers in America."
The survey also touched on school choice, another hot-button issue this year as Republican governors seek to expand and create voucher systems. The PDK/Gallup poll found that Americans increasingly favor charter schools, but not voucher systems, which received their lowest approval rating in ten years.
"With the ascendancy of Republicans to governorships of a number of key states, together with some increased sympathy for vouchers on the part of reformers, who would like to call themselves post partisan ... you're seeing a resurgence of interest," Toch said. "But I do not think that they are going to be able to successfully spread voucher initiatives on a very wide basis."
Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed Toch's quotes to the wrong Education Sector member.