Data from three education surveys converge around the importance of effective teaching

If you’re clamoring to know what Americans think about myriad K-12 education issues, then you’ve just struck gold. Three recent surveys provide a plethora of opinion data on issues ranging from charter schools and teachers unions, to taxpayer-funded increases in education spending and hot-button issues like teacher evaluations.

That the surveys have varying methodologies and unique questionnaires makes it all the more significant that common themes emerged – especially those that point to shifting attitudes about teacher-related reforms (i.e., evaluations, compensation, and tenure).

The first, conducted by Education Next and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG)—and based on information from a random and nationally representative sample of 2,776 respondents— casts the results in a political light. Researchers found that when it comes to education policy, “divisions between ordinary Democrats and Republicans… are quite minor.” Most interesting findings include that: the public doesn’t want to increase local taxes to foot the education bill (only 29 percent favored it); 62 percent “completely” or “somewhat” support retaining NCLB’s testing requirements (against just 12  percent who don’t); a majority of respondents didn’t have an opinion as to whether Race to the Top was a federal “intrusion”; 45 percent believe ineffective teachers should be fired rather than counseled; and 49 percent favored basing teachers’ salaries on students’ academic growth (compared to 26 who opposed).

The second, the well-known annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, was derived from telephone interviews with 1,008 adults recruited randomly. The poll shows that a majority of respondents think that improving the quality of teaching is the best lever to improve education overall. Parallel to what Education Next found, Americans rated their own local schools more favorably than schools generally. When it comes to teacher pay, 71 percent think teachers should be paid on the “basis of their work” rather than on a standard scale (a ten percent increase since 1983).

Time Magazine joins the survey action with this opinion sample of 1,000 adults. It found that 56 percent of respondents would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve schools (yes, but is that local dollars?); a sweeping majority (67 percent) think America’s schools are “in crisis”; 64 percent support student growth being configured into teacher evaluations; more than twice as many oppose tenure than support it (66 to 28 percent); and a full half believe that unions are “obstacles” to school improvement.

It’s encouraging to see several themes emerge from the data – in particular, broad recognition that teachers are paramount and that it may be time to rethink policies related to how we evaluate, pay, and retain them. Overall, the surveys indicate that the American public is willing to think fairly innovatively in this realm. Now we just need lawmakers, politicians, and teachers unions in Ohio to agree.

More By Author