In just two years’ time, every public school student nationwide will have a “highly qualified” teacher for science, English, history and math—at least that’s the plan according to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The law sets relatively modest criteria: teachers must have a four-year college degree, show competence in their subject and be certified to teach in their state. Even so, just 54% of today’s secondary teachers meet the requirements according to the U.S. Department of Education. “It’s going to be tough,” says Education Secretary Rod Paige, to find enough teachers who qualify.
Secretary Paige is not alone in believing that public schools face formidable challenges finding gifted teachers and keeping them in the classroom. A number of influential studies have suggested that unqualified teachers and poor teaching are pervasive problems in public schools across the country.[*] On top of this, many fear the new federal law requiring districts to hire “highly qualified” teachers for core subjects could lead to teacher shortages that will jolt schools nationwide.
This intense focus on teachers and teaching raises some obvious, sometimes provocative questions. Is the field attracting serious, accomplished individuals? Can you recruit and keep good teachers given mediocre teacher salaries? Given the demands of the new federal law, do we actually have enough qualified college graduates who are willing to teach? Do we emphasize the right skills and knowledge when we train and select new teachers? Do we have an effective system for evaluating teachers and motivating them to do their best? Do we have the political will to make changes where they are needed?
At the leadership level, there is active discussion of these questions, and some states and districts are re-examining long-established practices in hiring, tenure and teacher pay. But what do teachers themselves think about these issues? What about school superintendents and principals? And what do parents and members of the general public have to say? Do Americans broadly believe there are widespread problems in teaching? Do they consider this an urgent issue that must be addressed? What changes, if any, do they believe would be most useful?
For this report, Public Agenda has reviewed and analyzed a robust body of opinion research on teachers and teaching stretching back over the last decade. During this time, Public Agenda itself has conducted well over 20 major national opinion studies on public education, including over half a dozen measuring teachers’ views. Public Agenda’s surveys cover topics ranging from standards and testing to parental involvement to vouchers and charter schools.
Our most recent report, Stand by Me, looks specifically at teachers’ opinions about their own profession, including controversial subjects such as tenure, pay-for-performance, teacher education and certification and the role unions play in public education.
Public Agenda also reviewed surveys from other respected research organizations including the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Polls of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools and The MetLife Surveys of the American Teacher. These surveys and many others provided helpful insights; a complete list of resources is included at the conclusion of this report.
We also hope that readers looking for more detailed material will consult Public Agenda’s own body of work, especially Stand by Me, since its findings are particularly relevant. Public Agenda’s major reports on education are available on the Web free of charge through a grant from Washington Mutual. Reports can be downloaded from www.publicagenda.org.