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Teachers versus the Public

What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them

Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West

Publication Year: 2014

A comprehensive exploration of 21st Century school politics, Teachers versus the Public offers the first comparison of the education policy views of both teachers and the public as a whole, and reveals a deep, broad divide between the opinions held by citizens and those who teach in the public schools. Among the findings:

• Divisions between teachers and the public are wider and deeper than differences between other groups often thought to contest school policy, such as Republicans and Democrats, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, or African Americans and whites.

• The teacher-public gap is widest on such issues as merit pay, teacher tenure reform, impact of teacher unions, school vouchers, charter schools, and requirements to test students annually.

• Public support for school vouchers for all students, charter schools, and parent trigger laws increases sharply when people are informed of the national ranking of student performance in their local school district.

• Public willingness to give local schools high marks, its readiness to support higher spending levels, and its support for teacher unions all decline when the public learns the national ranking of their local schools.

• On most issues, teacher opinion does not change in response to new information nearly as much as it does for the public as a whole. In fact, the gap between what teachers and the public think about school reform grows even wider when both teachers and the public are given more information about current school performance, current expenditure levels, and current teacher pay.

The book provides the first experimental study of public and teacher opinion. Using a recently developed research strategy, the authors ask differently worded questions about the same topic to randomly chosen segments of representative groups of citizens. This approach allows them to identify the impact on public opinion of new information on issues such as student performance and school expenditures in each respondent's community.

The changes in public opinion when citizens receive information about school performance are largest in districts that perform below the national average. Altogether, the results indicate that support for many school reforms would increase if common core state standards were established and implemented in such a way as to inform the public about the quality of their local schools. These and many other findings illuminate the distance between teacher opinions and those of the public at large.

About the Research: In partnership with the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal, Education Next, authors Paul E. Peterson, Martin West and Michael Henderson surveyed nationally representative samples of teachers and the public as a whole annually between 2007 and 2013.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The central conflict in twenty-first-century school politics— and the central theme of this short book—is perfectly captured by the photo displayed on its cover. Led by the Wisconsin Education Association, hundreds of demonstrating teachers and their allies occupy in 2012 the state’s most prominent public space, the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol, in an attempt to block looming legislation limiting the collective bargaining rights of certain public sector unions...

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1. The Education Iron Triangle

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pp. 1-14

When Chicago teachers closed the city’s schools for seven days in September 2012, their demands went beyond the usual. In addition to asking for a salary increase, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) objected to a longer school day, teacher evaluations based on student test scores, merit pay, and the creation of additional charter schools. Two years earlier, Karen Lewis had overthrown—by a 60 percent margin—CTU’s reigning leadership...

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2. The Teacher-Public Divide

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pp. 15-30

Teacher policy, parental choice, school accountability, taxes, and spending: all that and more have been tossed into the crucible that forges the politics of American education. The questions under debate are nearly endless: How much should be spent on education? How should teachers be paid? Should students and schools be held accountable? Should teachers have tenure to protect them from losing their jobs? ...

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3. Other Social Divisions

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pp. 31-44

The gap between the thinking of teachers and the public as a whole may be wide, but other opinion gaps compete for the attention of policy analysts and political leaders. For some, education politics is first and foremost an extension of the culture wars.1 For others, it is a by-product of class politics, with well-heeled suburbanites resisting measures to use their tax dollars to equalize spending across school district lines.2...

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4. My Back Yard

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pp. 45-56

Perhaps the divide between the general public and teachers shrinks when people are asked about schools in their local community. It could be that public thinking about local schools reflects direct experiences with the schools or is shaped by conversations with friends and neighbors, while its opinions about the nation’s schools are shaped more by ideological speculation or by news reports about troubled schools in other places...

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5. Information Corrodes

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pp. 57-74

Iron remains perpetually strong in the absence of oxygen, but when exposed to the open air, it begins to rust and disintegrate. In politics, the iron triangle survives by means of closed doors, secret meetings, quiet negotiations, and unidentified financial contributions. When the public becomes better informed, fresh air corrodes the iron triangle...

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6. Further Oxidization

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pp. 75-92

Just as the education iron triangle benefits from lack of transparency about school expenditures and teacher salaries, so too does it draw strength from the perception that local schools are performing at an acceptable level.1 Americans do not have a false sense of complacency about the educational performance of the nation as a whole. They know that as many as one student in four fails to graduate from high school on the expected schedule...

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7. Divisions Within

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pp. 93-106

Two years before Rahm Emmanuel’s reform proposals provoked a teacher strike in Chicago, New York City (NYC) mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his plans for “ending tenure as we know it.” The NYC school system had come under fire for granting tenure to teachers without adequate assessment of their competence. Awarded at the end of three years of teaching, tenure made it extremely difficult for school administrators to fire low-performing teachers and eventually gave rise to the school system’s notorious “rubber room” for warehousing egregiously incompetent teachers who nonetheless continued to draw their salaries...

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8. Future of the Education Iron Triangle

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pp. 107-124

Various objections can be raised to the arguments advanced in this volume. In this concluding chapter we consider four of the most significant:
—The questions dictated the results.
—Teacher opinion means little because teachers lack the power to block policies that the public truly desires.
—Surveys do not capture political reality...

Appendix A: Data Collection and Analysis

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pp. 125-133

Appendix B: Selected Survey Questions, 2007-13

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pp. 134-145

Appendix C: Detailed Responses to Questions in Tables 2-2 and A-I

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pp. 146-154

Note to Reader

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pp. 155-156


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pp. 157-168


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pp. 169-178

About the Authors

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Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815725534
E-ISBN-10: 0815725531
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815725527

Page Count: 177
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 879551922
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Teachers versus the Public

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Education -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Educational change -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Schools -- United States -- Public opinion.
  • Educational surveys -- United States.
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