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Back-to-School Reality Check

In tumultuous times for public education, Americans still have faith in teachers.

By Dennis Van Roekel
August 24, 2011

Back-to-school should mean a fresh start – new friends, new books and school supplies, new excitement.

But the 2011 school year presents a different set of expectations. With states and school districts reeling from massive budget cuts, millions of students are returning to more crowded classrooms, fewer academic programs, and user fees for school buses, sports and afterschool activities. And staff are preparing for the impact of furlough days and layoffs.

These are tumultuous times for public education, but some things haven’t wavered. The public still has enormous faith in teachers, and they understand the importance of our work.

For 43 years, Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup organization have polled Americans about their attitudes toward public education. This year’s poll – released last week – shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans support public school teachers, while rejecting “silver bullet” solutions for improving student learning.

Seventy-one percent of poll respondents said they have confidence in public school teachers, and 73 percent said teachers should have flexibility in the classroom. A majority (51 percent) gave a grade of “A” or “B” to their neighborhood schools, where parents and community members know educators best.

Interestingly, more than two-thirds of respondents said they hear mostly negative news about teachers. Yet despite the drumbeat of criticism, the American people aren’t buying attempts to blame educators for all the problems in our schools.

In fact, a majority of those polled (52 percent) side with teachers unions and educators who have been under attack as a new crop of governors – Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich – declared war on public employees and the middle class.

Nor are Americans sold on the rest of their extreme agenda – gimmicks like vouchers, opposed nearly 2 to 1, and paying teachers based on student test scores vs. academic degrees and experience.

The lesson here is that confrontational politics makes good headlines, but it’s a total distraction from making headway in education reform. The public’s primary concern about education is funding, which ranks far above any other topic. People also understand the importance of great teachers. More than three-fourths agreed that high-achieving high school students should be recruited to become teachers.

A few months ago I wrote about teacher quality, and how we need to propose bold ideas to ensure that our children will have effective teachers in every classroom. The public also understands how important this is.

Today, as NEA proposes measures to improve teacher quality, we also have opportunities to build powerful partnerships with millions of Americans who understand the importance of great public schools and effective teachers. We draw strength from these poll findings as we seize these opportunities.

Let’s do the math…

  • Findings for the PDK/Gallup poll are based on interviews completed in June 2011. The survey was conducted with a national sample of adults, age 18 and older.
  • Two thirds (67 percent) said they would like for their child to become a public school teacher.
  • A majority (52 percent) said their local school system has a hard time recruiting good teachers.

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NEA President on MSNBC

NEA President on MSNBC
Dennis Van Roekel tells a national audience about NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me campaign.