- - Thursday, May 22, 2014


By Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson and Martin R. West
Brookings Institution Press, $28, 144 pages

America’s schools would probably fail if it were not for grade inflation — in more ways than one. However, Americans are divided about what to do.

Given national gridlock, you might assume that the deepest gulf is between Republicans and Democrats. Or, since property taxes historically financed schools, between suburban homeowners and urban renters. Perhaps parents have a unique view as the most invested, or the elderly as the least impacted. All those groups do have particular takes, but the fault line in education is really elsewhere, according to a new book from the Brookings Institution, “Teachers Versus the Public: What Americans Think About Schools and How to Fix Them.”

The main takeaway is that conservative reforms enjoy overwhelming support from Americans who care, but are forcefully resisted by teachers who might implement them. Unfortunately, the book engages in analytic sleight of hand to illustrate the results. For example: 76 percent of teachers oppose merit pay; 53 percent choose the strongest possible opposing answer. In contrast, 48 percent of Americans support merit pay, already a major difference, but the book says 66 percent of Americans with an opinion support merit pay. Using that standard, there is excellent news: Dramatic majorities of Americans who have formed opinions support merit pay, charter schools, vouchers and the elimination of teacher tenure — all causes conservatives have championed and dramatic majorities of teachers oppose.

Nevertheless, on each of those issues more than a quarter of Americans have no opinion. On charter schools, where the data shows that black Americans and Hispanics differ greatly from teachers, 39 percent of Americans don’t have an opinion. The data is not cleanly presented in the book, and while the neutral numbers should be examined more closely, the hope for reform is that these people would not vote on education issues, if they voted at all.

There is always a temptation to suggest that if only people had more information they would embrace conservative policy, but Brookings‘ data suggests that may be true on education reform. Americans, particularly minorities, are inclined to support pay increases for teachers and more money for schools, but when asked to guess the salaries of teachers and the amount of money spent per pupil in their district, the public guesses wrong by a factor of two. When they’re informed of the real numbers (“The median household income of teachers is $15,000 higher than the median household income of the general public”), the public’s original support deteriorates. Similarly, voucher support jumps 20 points when people are told how their local school district ranks nationally.

The most striking line of the book is this: “The alliance between teachers and minorities within the Democratic coalition can be held together as long as education problems are defined as the by-product of inadequate funding.” The challenge for conservatives is educating the public about public education. Unfortunately, the book also uncovers a different phenomenon; namely, that Americans think that the school system is doing poorly, but their local district is doing fine.

There lies a dilemma for conservative reformers. Recent controversies over Common Core have found conservatives rediscovering the value of federalism and local control. However, the Brookings data suggests that standardized testing not only enjoys considerable support, but also that if people know the results, they’re more likely to embrace various conservative reform ideas.

While the book focuses on the major disagreements of our time, it also reveals surprising opportunities for the advancement of cultural conservatism. The book does not study evolution or sex education, but it does find that teachers are in agreement with the general public in supporting school prayer and opposing affirmative action. Given the current trend of the Supreme Court, both issues may be ripe for conservative re-examination, and place teachers at odds with their own unions.

That is really the heart of the issue. While only 39 percent of teachers identify as Democrat, most unions collect dues directly from teachers’ paychecks and then use the money to exclusively finance the campaigns of Democrats, whom they eventually end up negotiating with. While two-thirds of older people find this arrangement problematic, less than half of the young agree that teachers’ unions are harmful. Fascinatingly, Americans in bad school districts unaware of their national ranking are particularly fond of public teacher unions. However, studies such as these, which illustrate the canyon between public and teachers, will help move the needle — already 59 percent of Americans say they have only a “little” or “some” trust in teachers.

In all, the Brookings book is worth reading for anyone interested in school reform, and the actual survey questions they ask are evenhanded. I’ve noted its most significant analytical defect, though it does have others — the main analogy employed is not well-explained, Rahm Emanuel’s surname is continuously misspelled, and, perhaps worst for the acceptability of the book, the work was partially financed by charter school advocates.

Grant Everett Starrett is a judicial-reform advocate in Tennessee.

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