Are Americans Losing Confidence in Their Teachers?

The teachers union took on Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, in the longest school strike in a major U.S. city in years. When the dust settled, some said that the teachers had won the battle over teacher evaluations, while others pointed out that they had lost the effort to cap the growth of charter schools. It is clear that the union had more public support than the mayor anticipated, probably because parents want, more than anything, a predictable place for their children to go when they leave for work in the morning. Still, the strike widened the crack between Democratic politicians and one of their key constituencies. Since Wisconsin governor Scott Walker took on the teachers union and won, the winds of change have begun to blow in more than just the Great Lakes region.

The teacher has long been an admired figure in American popular culture. The selfless public servant, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), subdued the Blackboard Jungle in 1955; years later, Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) in Stand and Deliver inspired his East Los Angeles students to success in Advanced Placement Calculus; in 1989, John Keating (Robin Williams) created a Dead Poets Society to reach even the most cynical students at an elite private school.

We all remember at least one teacher who had a decisively positive impact on our lives. We see them as selfless members of a helping profession. The Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) poll has repeatedly asked the following question: “Do you have confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools?” Year after year, well over two-thirds of the public says “yes.” In 2012 the percentage was 71 percent. In this year’s Education Next poll, the favorable response was given by 72 percent of respondents who were asked this question.

But the Education Next poll varied the query for another (randomly selected) group of respondents, who were given the opportunity to choose among four answers, “How much trust and confidence do you have in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools?” They could select one of the following: 1) complete confidence, 2) a lot of confidence, 3) some confidence, or 4) little confidence.

Only 42 percent selected one of the two most favorable options: 4 percent had “complete” confidence, while 38 percent had “a lot of” confidence. A clear majority (58 percent) had either “some” (49 percent) or “little” (9 percent) confidence.

Only about one-third of African American (34 percent) and Hispanic (36 percent) respondents expressed complete or a lot of trust and confidence in teachers, with the remaining two-thirds saying they had little or some confidence.

Surprisingly, political independents had less trust and confidence in teachers than either Republicans or Democrats. Like African Americans and Hispanics, only about a third of independents (35 percent) said they had a lot of or complete confidence compared to nearly half of both Republicans (45 percent) and Democrats (49 percent). If political leaders pay particular attention to the opinions of swing voters, the teachers union may experience some tough sledding in the political arena in the years ahead.

Maybe the public has never quite trusted the teaching force as much as previous polls have led people to believe. We all know a teacher we admire, but are we watching too many of them yelling in state houses and on the picket line to continue to trust the teaching force as a whole?

Stay tuned for next year’s Education Next poll. Once again, we will ask the public how much trust and confidence they have in the men and women who are teaching the children in our public schools.

— Paul E. Peterson

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