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School reform: Teachers, public at odds on what to do to improve schools

By MARCELLA S. KREITER   |   Aug. 14, 2011 at 4:30 AM   |   Comments

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CHICAGO, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- With states scrambling to get out of No Child Left Behind benchmarks, anemic tax collections decimating education budgets and test scores indicating U.S. students are losing ground to students in other countries, how are Americans reacting to these developments and are they pushing for effective reforms or out to punish teachers?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week said the No Child law -- a cornerstone of the Bush administration education policy -- actually is impeding efforts to raise standards and has led to a "dumbing-down" of curriculum to meet the law's proficiency standards. As the law currently stands, school districts that raise standards, increasing the percentage of students not reaching the higher bar, are being punished for trying to improve education.

"We need more highly trained, highly skilled workers; we need to keep raising standards, raising the bar," Duncan told reporters at the White House.

"I've always said from day one, the best ideas in education, frankly, aren't going to come from me and they're not going to come from anyone else in Washington; they're going to come at the local level."

But a study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next indicates teachers and the general public are not on the same page when it comes to improving education.

Professor William G. Howell of the University of Chicago, the director of the survey, acknowledged teachers and the public have different reasons for supporting or opposing reform efforts.

"There are two classes of explanations for the differences we observes between teachers and the general public -- or so it seems to me," Howell said in response to an e-mail inquiry.

"The first focuses on interests and underscores the role that teachers play as stakeholders in public education. By this account, teachers resist some policy reforms not because they are bad for kids, but because they make their jobs more difficult, less rewarding -- financial and otherwise -- or both.

"The second class of explanations emphasizes the expertise that teachers have. By this account, teachers simply know more about what is required to educate children generally, and the specific children in their communities in particular. Hence, the differences that are observed between teachers and the public are emblematic of the kinds of differences of opinion one regularly observes between laypersons and experts."

Teacher opposition to reforms is increasing along with public support for accountability, the study found.

"The public's appetite for standardized tests appears undiminished," said study authors Howell, and Martin West and Paul Peterson, both of Harvard.

The study found strong support for annual proficiency testing for grades 3-8 and once in high school, mirroring the No Child mandates.

The study, appearing in the fall issue of Education Next, found teachers opposing such reforms as merit pay (favored by 47 percent of the public but only 27 percent of teachers) and alterations to tenure practices -- with 55 percent of the public favoring tenure decisions be based on student achievement and only 30 percent of teachers in favor of academic progress as a basis.

"The idea (of merit pay) remains anathema to teachers," the study found.

"Sixty percent of teachers support the idea of tying grade promotion to test performance, while 66 percent support high school graduation exams, even as these same teachers overwhelming oppose the idea of linking their own remuneration to student test scores."

When asked if teachers' salaries should be cut, only 7 percent of the public said they supported such action, with 55 percent saying teachers deserve a raise; however, support for raises dropped to 43 percent once respondents were told what the average teacher makes in their states. Two-thirds of the public also wants teachers to pick up 20 percent of their pension and healthcare costs -- a budget-balancing measure overwhelmingly rejected by teachers, the study said.

Such issues came to the fore in February amid protests in Madison, Wis., as the governor moved to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

"All in all, the Wisconsin controversy seems to have contributed to a divergence of opinion between teachers and the general public," The authors said. "The biggest changes in opinion took place within the teaching profession, which moved further away from the views of the public at large. The public, and especially the affluent, nonetheless want to pay teachers more."

Support for vouchers has grown by 8 percentage points since last year, with 47 percent of the 2,600 people surveyed April 15-May 4 saying they support giving families the chance to enroll their children in private schools with tuition paid by the government. On charter schools, support was little changed with 43 percent saying they supported such schools and only 18 percent opposed.

Thirty-three percent said they think teachers unions affect schools negatively, up two points from the 2009-10 survey while 58 percent of teachers said unions have a positive impact, up from 51 percent.

The study found more affluent, college graduates were more critical of unions, 56 percent saying unions have a negative impact, and a nearly like proportion (54 percent) rated their schools, where per pupil expenditures averaged $12,300, A or B while only 15 percent would give the nation's schools overall a similar grade. Thirty-seven percent of teachers would grade schools nationally at A or B.

Nationally, per pupil expenditures averaged $10,792, the National Center for Education Statistics showed, ranging from a low of $5,964 per student in Utah to more than $17,000 in New York City.

"Teachers are much more likely to give schools high marks; on many issues, a majority of teachers takes the side opposite to that of the larger public, revealing tensions between what Americans overall think is best and what employees within the education industry prefer," the study found.

Though the Obama administration is encouraging the development of national standards, public education in the United States is locally controlled.

"Through votes, school board meetings, petition drives, and direct advo­cacy, all citizens, at least in principle, can influence public education," the authors said. "Principle and practice, however, often part ways. That all citizens can influence public education is not to say that all citizens do so. Generations of political science research confirm that higher-income and, especially, better-educated citizens are orders of magnitude more likely to participate in politics. And recent evidence demonstrates that teachers are far more likely to vote in school board elections than is the general public."

The authors concluded, "Plainly, the battles over school reform are far from over."

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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