OMAHA, Neb. – An annual poll regarding the U.S. public education system shows that teachers’ unions are losing support among Americans, while the percentage of people that support school reform has reached a record high.
The results underscore the growing momentum behind efforts to expand school choice programs, improve the quality of instruction, and inject accountability into teacher evaluation and compensation.
The 43rd annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools is a fair measure of public opinion, experts agree, with the exception of a poorly framed question on school vouchers which produced questionable results.
The poll results show that nearly half of the 1,000 American adults polled about the influence of unionism in schools believe it is hurting public education.
“In 1976, the PDK/Gallup Poll asked Americans if teacher unionization helped, hurt, or made no difference in the quality of public school education in the United States. Back then, only one in four Americans believed teacher unions helped, but a relatively large number (13%) were undecided,” according to the report.
“Today, one in four Americans still believe teachers unions help, but almost one of two Americans believes that teacher unions hurt public schools.”
In other words, the undecided have decided that unions are a toxic influence on public schools. A total of 47 percent of those polled said teachers unions have hurt schools.
Patrick Semmens, Director of Legal Information for the National Right to Work Foundation, said the poll shows that “The public is increasingly realizing that teacher union bosses have for years put forced dues and union power ahead of what’s best for students and teachers.”
The public’s growing distaste for teachers unions is also illustrated in its support for measures that run counter to union interests or policy. For example, poll respondents believe that teacher salaries should be based on several factors, including performance, evaluations, education level and experience, instead of the union model, which is based largely on seniority.
A combined 87 percent of Americans believe that principal evaluations should be a very important or somewhat important factor when determining a teacher’s salary, according to the poll.
The poll also revealed that Americans believe those evaluations are equally important when determining teacher layoffs.
“Teacher layoffs based on seniority (last hired-first fired) is the general practice in most school districts across the country,” according to the PDK/Gallup report. “We discovered that Americans believe that school districts should use multiple factors to determine which teachers should be laid off first, but, of the options presented, Americans believe the principal’s evaluation of a teacher’s performance should be given the most weight.”
More than half of those who responded also support the release of information on how the students of individual teachers perform on standardized tests. That means that state lawmakers in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, and numerous other states who are moving toward a more performance-based system have the public’s support.
The one-size-fits-all union model of public education could also be losing favor among the public, with the vast majority of those polled supporting measures to provide teachers more flexibility.
For decades, union contracts have slowly become overgrown with work rules that stifle creativity and innovation in the classroom, often dictating how, when and where educators can teach students. But an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that natural teaching talent, and flexibility in teaching methods are key to a productive education.
According to the PDK/Gallup survey, a whopping 70 percent of those polled believe that natural talent has more to do with the ability to reach students than college training, and 73 percent favored giving teachers flexibility in the classroom, rather than forcing a prescribed curriculum.
The theme of choice, for teachers and parents, is something that resonates with the public, said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“ … Just as most poll respondents want teachers to be free to select materials and strategies, 74% support allowing families to choose which public schools in the community the students attend, regardless of where they live,” Nathan wrote in The PDK/Gallup report. “These responses are consistent with empowering educators to decide how they teach. Some educators want more respect, but oppose allowing families to choose among district and charter public schools.
“Strong majorities of the public, wisely, I think, support both educator and family choice.”
The PDK/Gallup poll shows that public approval of charter schools is at a record high since the group began tracking this topic a decade ago, with young and conservative Americans among the strongest supporters.
“Americans continue to embrace the concept of charter schools. This year’s poll shows an approval rating of 70 percent, the highest recorded since the question was first asked 10 years ago,” according to the PDK/Gallup report.
That support has increased 10 percentage points since 2007 alone.
We believe the public support for charters and flexibility in teaching methods go hand in hand. For decades, self-interested teachers unions have stifled efforts to expand choice in public schools by opposing the establishment of innovative public charter schools and establishing rigid contract language that hamstrings educators to a one-size-fits-all model of instruction.
Teachers unions stifle choice because it threatens the industrial-style model that has allowed them to gain control over public schools and steer funds into their coffers.
Public charter schools are typically non-unionized and are exempt from many of the contractual labor restrictions imposed on teachers at traditional public schools. As a result, innovation and creativity is the norm, rather than the exception.
Americans are clearly recognizing that the new approach to public education is working. On the general topic of school choice, 74 percent of respondents supported allowing students and their parents to choose which public schools to attend, regardless of where they live.
While the public clearly supports school choice, the PDK/Gallup question on vouchers revealed results that are startlingly inconsistent with other polls, with 34 percent favoring vouchers and 65 percent opposing.
The question asked: Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?
Paul DiPerna, research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, explained that unlike the rest of the PDK/Gallup poll, the poorly worded question on vouchers has produced results inconsistent with other surveys over the years.
“’At public expense’ makes it a loaded question. Not only is it a loaded question, they don’t give a proper definition of what a voucher program does,” DiPerna said. “That can contribute to lower response favorability.
“It’s just this one particular area of the poll, it’s just so different from the rest of the survey.”
DiPerna said that other, properly framed polls on vouchers show public support as much as 30 percent higher than the PDK/Gallup results. A Friedman study on the PDK/Gallup question revealed that tweaking the wording of the question increased favorability from 41 percent to 63 percent in 2004. The following year the same study showed an increase from 37 percent to 60 percent, DiPerna said.
“With our research at the state level, typical favorability has ranged from the mid 50s to the low to mid 60s,” he said, adding that the difference between the PDK/Gallup results and other studies has to do with how well the poll explains what a voucher is.
“Most people aren’t well versed in public policy issues. The average (citizen) just doesn’t have much information on the issues,” DiPerna said. “That makes it all the more important to have the proper framing. They are highly sensitive to the bias of the wording.
“The other results (of the PDK/Gallup poll) make sense, and are consistent with the polling we do at the state level.”