The school reform policy gap

The perception of President Obama’s education policies has fluctuated during his term, giving him failing grades for his performance in supporting public education. Examine the poll data with a teacher leader expert highlighting the statistics showing the disconnection between current policy and public sentiment.

The latest PDK/Gallup Poll reveals a significant difference in the opinions of the American public and the Obama Administration over the best ways to reform schools and assure teaching quality.

In 2010, more than one in three Americans actually gave the President a “D” or a “F” for his performance in support of public schools — a much poorer showing than the year before. What has changed? Since the 2009 poll, the Administration has laid out the specifics of its plan to turn around low-performing schools and improve teacher performance – and to significantly increase the number of charter schools in the U.S.

The poll surfaced several disconnects between current policy and public sentiment:

  • While the Administration wants to make it easier to recruit teachers to high needs schools through short-cut alternative certification programs, the American people believe teachers need “more time to learn to teach in new ways.”
  • While the Administration has put emphasis on firing “bad” teachers (e.g., Central Falls High School in Rhode Island), the American people believe the call for mass firings of school faculty is wrong-headed. In the poll, 54% prefer a strategy specifically aimed at improving teaching skills. Only 13 percent think it’s a good idea to close a low-performing school and re-open it as a charter (a la New Orleans).
  • On the question of school reform priorities, Americans believe that improving the quality of teachers is “more important” (44%) than measuring student achievement through accountability testing (11%) or developing more demanding education standards (24%).
  • A sizable majority of Americans (71%) believe teachers’ pay should be tied to their work, not just on a “standard scale basis.” But they are also increasingly skeptical about using current standardized tests to judge students and teachers — and they are now much less likely to want teacher pay to be “very closely tied” to students’ academic achievement. In the 2000 PDK poll, 25 percent called for teacher pay to be tightly linked to student test scores. In 2010, that percentage dropped to 19.

As I told Education Week reporter Dakarai I. Aarons recently, there is far more interest among the American public in supporting teachers than in firing them or paying them on the basis of test scores. That doesn’t mean the American people don’t want a results-oriented profession. They do. But they seem to understand (better than many policymakers) that most teachers who are not effective can become so.

Indeed, the 2010 poll suggests that Americans have quite a bit of faith in their public school teachers.

Far more public school parents today, compared to a decade ago, believe schools have “caused” their children to be “eager” about learning (63% in 2010, compared to 50% in 1998). What’s more, over 70 percent of Americans (not just public school parents) “have trust and confidence” in those who teach children in the public schools.

Far too many policy approaches today view teachers as the problem to be fixed — not as professionals who can create and enact solutions with the right supports. Could this negative outlook on teaching explain why more Americans are giving the President failing grades for his performance in supporting public education?