Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them

Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them


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Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them by Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, Martin R. West

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815725527
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 04/29/2014
Pages: 177
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of Education Next and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Endangering Prosperity, A Global View of the American School , with Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann (Brookings, 2013); The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools , with William G. Howell (Brookings, 2004 and 2006). He is coeditor (with Martin West) of No Child Left Behind? The Practice and Politics of School Accountability (Brookings, 2003).

Michael Henderson is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Mississippi.

Martin R. West is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate Schools of Education, deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance, and nonresident senior fellow with the Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings.

Read an Excerpt



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

Brookings Institution Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2552-7


The Education Iron Triangle

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. She and a number of other teachers had previously read Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, a breathless exposé of the privatization of public sector operations in nations across the globe. The group picked Lewis to lead a campaign to persuade Chicago's teachers that CTU's leadership was acquiescing to the same dynamic right before their eyes.

Once elected, Lewis found a new nemesis—the recently elected mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, fresh from his stint in Washington, D.C., as the White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama. "Rahm, being Rahm," one observer said, "wanted to make Chicago the epicenter for reform nationally." During Emmanuel's campaign, he and Lewis had a private dinner of the sort that mayoral candidates like to have with leaders of powerful interest groups. While the conversation seemed to go well enough at the time, their relationship fell apart after Lewis told a reporter that the incoming mayor had said that a quarter of the students in Chicago were "never going to make it and he wasn't going to throw money at the problem." Needless to say, Emmanuel denied the statement, and the experience undoubtedly strengthened his resolve.

Nor did Lewis have much time for another prominent Obama administration official, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While superintendent of Chicago's schools, Duncan had opened charter schools and introduced a policy that made it easier for principals to dismiss untenured teachers that they deemed ineffective. In one remarkable incident, Lewis mocked him for an alleged speech impediment: "This guy who has the nerve to stand up and say, 'Education is the thivil rights ithue of our time.' You know he went to private school because if he had gone to public school he'd have had that lisp fixed."

Lewis had little tolerance for "reform unionism," the label that President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was seeking to affix to her organization, the more politically astute of the country's two major teacher unions. The other, the National Education Association (NEA), has many more members, but its constituency is disproportionately concentrated in smaller towns and suburban areas. In addition, it has faced frequent turnovers in leadership, making it difficult for a single national spokesperson to emerge. The AFT, by contrast, has an urban constituency with an especially substantial presence in New York state, where the national media also are concentrated. That fact had been exploited by Al Shanker, who, after participating in a series of strikes that won collective bargaining rights for New York City teachers, served as president of the AFT for nearly a quarter-century and became the voice of the organized teaching profession. Although Shanker was criticized for ag gressively opposing affirmative action policies in New York City, he gradually won respect for his considered views on everything from national curricular standards to charter schools.

No one was quite able to replace Shanker once he passed from the scene in the closing years of the last century until Randi Weingarten, elected to the same office in 2008, managed to acquire similar stature through her embrace of reform unionism. Reform unionism is based on the idea that teacher unions should collaborate with management in the process of reforming schools, accommodating (and shaping) proposals for change typically deemed anathema to union interests. Weingarten earned accolades by exhibiting an open mind on student testing (if carefully done), charter schools (if properly regulated), and merit pay (if properly designed). In Weingarten's view, teacher unions had to sway with the winds of change, and the reform wind was blowing gustily during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Too much resistance and a strong gale might fell trees that had been nurtured for decades.

CTU leadership had been stout supporters of Weingarten's reform unionism, but Karen Lewis would have none of that. A true citizen of what Carl Sandburg called the City of Broad Shoulders, she wanted to fight back using the union's ultimate weapon, the strike, to stall reform initiatives. After all, Shanker had employed a strike to win collective bargaining rights for New York City teachers in the midst of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign. His success inspired strikes in Chicago in the early 1970s, through which teachers also won collective bargaining rights, major salary increases, and more favorable working conditions.

After those halcyon days, strikes went out of fashion. Teacher unions discovered that tough but quiet backroom bargaining generally secured the same goals with far less fuss and public risk. But Karen Lewis felt that teachers were steadily losing ground. With the 2002 passage of the federal law, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), school reform had gained a certain ascendancy. Regular student testing demonstrated that many students, especially minority students in urban centers, were not meeting state proficiency standards in reading and math. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 11 percent of African American eighth graders and 15 percent of Hispanic eighth graders were proficient in mathematics. U.S. students as a whole trailed their peers in top-scoring countries abroad by wide margins. A new type of school, the charter school, which typically had a non-union teaching staff, was beginning to compete with the traditional public school. Although charter schools remained few in number, their popularity was growing. Even worse, demands for evaluation of teacher performance, creation of merit pay programs for teachers, and revision of teacher tenure policy had received widespread endorsement, including that of President Obama himself. Newly formed groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and Democrats for Education Reform were broadening the reform coalition beyond its original Republican base.

Rahm Emmanuel epitomized the new risks that unions were facing. A former Democratic congressman from Chicago who had always had solid union backing, Emmanuel nonetheless campaigned for mayor on a school reform platform. He favored merit pay, charter schools, and a longer school day. When elected, he appointed two charter school supporters to his school board and named one of them its president.

For Lewis, the opening of the school year in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign provided an opportunity not unlike the one that Shanker had enjoyed in 1960. A strike would put teacher power on display for the whole nation to see. From the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ballot, Democratic candidates would not want to risk losing the support of teacher unions, a cornerstone of their electoral coalition. The mayor would be forced to collapse before teacher demands. And the boldness of the strike's timing would send a message to President Obama and Secretary Duncan that the days of tolerance for Democrats who drifted too far from union interests would be numbered. Reform unionism would be sent to its grave.

After a biblical seven days, a compromise was struck, children returned to school, and the debate began over which side had won. Lewis had plenty to crow about. Despite the school system's severe budget crisis, the union had won a salary increase of no less than 16 percent over four years. Also, the teacher evaluation system was designed in such a way as to barely, if at all, comply with a new Illinois law mandating that student test scores be incorporated into teacher ratings. Yet the agreement did not preclude the formation of new charter schools, which were eroding traditional public school enrollments, forcing additional district schools to close, and limiting the number of teachers that the district would need in the future.

Teachers and Reform

As suggested by the ease with which Karen Lewis mobilized her members in Chicago, many rank-and-file teachers do not back reform unionism, to say nothing of the more aggressive agenda promoted by the likes of Mayor Emmanuel. But just how widespread is teacher opposition to rigorous teacher evaluations, school accountability, teacher pension reform, merit pay, charter schools, school vouchers, and other items on the reform agenda? How does teacher opinion compare with that of the general public? Are they essentially in agreement on the most important issues? Or is there a wide gap between the views that teachers hold and those held by parents, taxpayers, and the public as a whole? And how does the stance taken by teachers compare with the positions held by African American and Hispanic citizens, who arguably have the most to gain from improvements to the country's most troubled schools? If quality education is the civil rights issue of our time, as Secretary Duncan has said, then it is worth knowing whether teachers and these minority groups are on the same page.

The Chicago strike confirms that teacher organizations have the clout to shape education policy. The routine participation of these organizations in the collective bargaining process gives teachers a special seat at the policymaking table available to no other group involved in school governance. Furthermore, the collection of union dues directly from teacher paychecks, a common practice in many school districts, augments teacher power by generating resources that can be used in political campaigns for school board, state, and national elections.

But does the disproportionate power of teachers in education policymaking cause problems for democratic governance? If teachers and the public have a common vision, there is no reason to fear teacher influence in the politics of American education. Indeed, if that is the case, the public can safely rely on teacher power to promote common goals. But if the divisions of opinion between teachers and the public are deep, not just in Chicago but throughout the country, then the conflict between Lewis and Emmanuel may have more general import.

For Randi Weingarten, the answers to these questions are obvious: "Parents, the public, and teachers share the same beliefs about the importance of good teaching and strong neighborhood schools. For all who care about kids, the challenge is to act on this shared vision." Karen Lewis is no less insistent that she and her union are fighting for everyone, not just for teachers. "The fight is not about Karen Lewis," she shouted to her cheering followers. "This fight is about the very soul of public education—not only in Chicago but everywhere." In her view, "Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet: When you come after our children, you come after us."

But union leaders, when issuing public statements, may make claims about public support that are not altogether justified. In the aftermath of the teacher strike, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), a respected polling firm associated with the University of Chicago, administered a survey to a cross-section of the Chicago public. Nearly two-thirds of respondents favored the expansion of charter schools within the city, while less than one-third opposed the idea. Nearly three-fourths favored merit pay for teachers, and almost the same fraction favored the withdrawal of tenure from teachers found to be consistently ineffective. More than half favored closing some schools in order to help balance the school budget, although 41 percent disagreed with that choice. The NORC poll did not report teacher views on these issues, so one cannot be sure of the extent to which teachers and the public differed on the key issues at the heart of the Chicago strike. But NORC's results do suggest that the similarity of public and teacher opinions is more problematic than either Weingarten's or Lewis's statements assume. That, in any case, is a topic that we intend to explore systematically—with the help of a simple metaphor: the iron triangle.

Iron Triangles

Triangles are the strongest, most rigid, most solid, of basic geometric forms. Circles are slippery, rectangles wobble, and parallelograms collapse at the least provocation. But triangles relentlessly resist change. That's why the three-legged stool is sturdy, the tricycle stable, and the ancient pyramid an architectural triumph.

On Earth, iron is a pervasive element; it forms much of the planet's outer and inner core, and it is one of the most common elements found on Earth's crust. When iron is smelted, impurities harden and strengthen it. When first used for agricultural purposes and armed conflict, iron transformed economic relationships, cultures, and belief systems. When iron is cast as a triangular form, the object is tough, strong, and powerful. For political analysts, the iron triangle is the perfect metaphor for characterizing one of the strongest, most stable, and most pervasive aspects of American politics—the connection among producer interests, elected officials, and actions taken by government agencies.

Metaphorically speaking, representatives of producer and occupation-based interest groups—oil barons, banks, auto companies, trial lawyers, farmers, and the like—constitute the base of an isosceles triangle. They serve hard, highly concentrated, powerful interests. Those interests connect and support the triangle's other two sides. By means of steady communication and financial contributions, representatives of producer groups build close relationships with the senators and representatives who serve on relevant committees in Congress, state legislators who act in the same capacity at the middle tier of government, and local officials who serve on special boards and commissions that affect the well-being of the producer group. The third side of the triangle is formed by the government agencies that produce goods, regulations, and services of interest to the producer group (figure 1-1).

On a two-dimensional plane, an iron triangle encloses a space that is virtually impossible to penetrate. As a metaphor, it captures the reality that producer groups excel at discovering channels of communication that access information unavailable to the general public. Iron triangle politics are quiet, operating beneath the radar, almost in secret. To capture special benefits from the public trough, the producer group needs to belly up to the goodies while squeezing others to the side.

Producer groups succeed in insulating policy decisions from external pressures because they have the focus and resources to pursue their goals effectively; the attention of the general public, in contrast, is too episodic and scattered to have an impact, except in times of crisis. In the midst of a financial meltdown, banks may find their privileges crimped by a suddenly aroused Congress. If gas prices and profit margins soar in tandem, tax loopholes benefiting the oil industry may be closed. But times of crisis are the exception, iron triangle theory tells us. Ordinarily, the iron triangle operates quietly—at the public's expense.

For the iron triangle metaphor to apply, however, the interests and desires of the producer groups that form the triangle must differ from those of the general public. If the public and the producer group agree, it makes no difference whether decisions are made by iron triangles. What the special groups insist on, the public wants as well. In this heavenly world, the iron triangle is nothing but a trio of angels. On the planet Earth, however, producer group interests are seldom so benign. If not quite nefarious, they are at least discordant with the considered views of citizens and consumers excluded from the insulated spaces that producer groups fabricate.

School Politics, Conventionally Understood

Curiously, the iron triangle metaphor is seldom applied to school politics. The politics of education is typically presented as either an extension of

—the culture wars: Should schools teach evolution? Should they supply teenagers with condoms?

—class conflict: Do the affluent stand in the way of efforts to equalize school spending?

—generational differences: Will the elderly pay for the schools of the next generation?

—just another issue that divides Democrats from Republicans along familiar lines: Are schools a state and local responsibility, or is there a role for the federal government?

or, most persuasively,

—a crucial component of the ongoing racial and ethnic divide: Is more desegregation needed? Are African American and Hispanic students receiving a quality education?


Excerpted from TEACHERS VERSUS THE PUBLIC by Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, Martin R. West. Copyright © 2014 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 The Education Iron Triangle 1

2 The Teacher-Public Divide 15

3 Other Social Divisions 31

4 My Back Yard 45

5 Information Corrodes 57

6 Further Oxidization 75

7 Divisions Within 91

8 Future of the Education Iron Triangle 107

Appendix A Data Collection and Analysis 125

Appendix B Selected Survey Questions, 2007-13 134

Appendix C Detailed Responses to Questions in Tables 2-2 and A-1 146

Note to Reader 155

Notes 157

Index 169

About the Authors 179

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