Do Teachers and Parents Want the Same Things?

Earlier this week the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released the results of a poll touting the harmony between America’s teachers and parents. AFT president Randi Weingarten commented, “Not only do parents overwhelmingly believe in the promise of public education to help all children reach their dreams, their prescription for how to reclaim that promise matches what America’s teachers want for their students and schools.” According to the survey, parent opinion reads like a photocopy of the union’s agenda – supportive of more investment in schools and teachers, wary of standardized testing, skeptical about evaluating teachers based on student performance, and resistant to the expansion of choice.

No group has a greater immediate stake in our public schools than parents and teachers, except perhaps students themselves. Thirty percent of American households include minor children. Allying the voices of all those parents with America’s three million teachers would certainly unleash a formidable political force.

Setting aside concerns about the mechanics of the AFT survey raised elsewhere, a deeper question remains: Do parents really agree with teachers as much as Weingarten would have us believe? In a book to be published by Brookings later this year, Teacher vs. the Public: What Americans (and their Teachers) Think About Schools and How to fix Them, Paul E Peterson, Martin R. West and I examine just this topic in a comprehensive way. We compare the opinions of parents, teachers and other groups across a range of education issues. In nearly every case, teachers exhibit greater differences from the rest of Americans than any other group.

Our findings are based on Education Next polls that have explored public opinion on many questions over the years 2007 to 2012. The surveys include sizeable samples of parents and teachers, allowing comparison between the two groups. In a few instances parents closely resemble teachers. When asked in 2012 to grade their local schools, about 60% of both parents and teachers give a grade of A or B. Nearly as many parents express confidence in public school teachers as do those teachers themselves. About two thirds of both groups favor more spending when simply asked whether funding should increase, decrease, or stay the same.

Digging a little deeper, however, the consensus falls apart. Sure, in the abstract everyone wants more money for public schools – just as everyone wants more cash in their pocket and more dessert on the table. But, when people are informed about the current level of spending in their districts before being asked their opinion, teacher support for greater spending remains high (60%), but parent support drops to 46%. When information about current spending is coupled with a question about whether taxes to fund local schools should be raised, lowered, or kept the same, the gap between teachers and parents soars. Support slips to 50% for teachers and plummets to just 27% for parents.

Opinion on teacher salaries is much the same. Ask Americans whether teacher pay should be raised, lowered, or kept the same, most will say they want pay to go up. Unsurprisingly, most teachers (85%) want higher pay. Parents are less supportive of higher pay, but still a strong majority (64%) concurs. When people are informed about average teacher salaries in their state, however, the groups split. A majority of teachers still wants more pay, but a majority of parents would rather leave it where it is.

What about testing? One of the most publicized findings of the AFT survey is that a majority of parents feel there is too much standardized testing. Maybe so, but this hardly means parents are ready to abandon it. In fact, 62% of parents in the Education Next-PEPG survey favor continuing to require that students be tested in math and reading each year in grades three through eight; only 14% of parents oppose testing.

Parents are also far more likely than teachers to favor using test results in evaluating teachers. When asked about what share of teacher evaluations should be based on student test scores, the average response among parents is 55% – more than half of the evaluation would come from standardized tests. In contrast, teachers think only about one-fourth of their evaluations should be based on student test results.

Moreover, parents want consequences for teachers. A clear majority (62%) of parents said each public school teacher’s impact on test scores should be publicly released, a policy opposed by a majority of teachers (54%). Similarly, most parents (63%) support using student test scores in deciding whether to award tenure – again, a policy opposed by the majority of teachers (62%). Parents are more ambivalent when it comes to basing teacher pay on student performance, a policy favored by 50% and opposed by 26%. But this hardly allies them with teachers, who overwhelmingly oppose it (72%).

So, parents are less favorable than teachers when it comes to paying for more spending or higher salaries; more favorable to standardized testing; more favorable to measuring teachers’ performance based on student test scores; and more favorable to holding teachers accountable for that performance. The list of differences goes on and on.

Weingarten proclaims: “When teachers and parents join together, we can be an unstoppable force to fulfill the promise of education as a pathway to opportunity for all children.” Perhaps, then, the AFT should consider joining parents in their call for school reform.

—Michael Henderson

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