America's Teachers: "Don't Make Us Scapegoats"

Passionate about their profession, but unnerved and angered by expectations they consider unrealistic. At the mercy of administrators they dont trust, students who wont try and parents who just dont care. New national survey reveals solid support for unions and little appetite for tenure reform-but some openness to merit pay and alternative teacher certification.


New York -- Feeling they have become scapegoats for all the problems facing education (76%) and sensing little support from administrators or parents, Americas teachers see unions and tenure as necessary protectors against school system politics and unfounded accusations by parents and students. Even so, 78% say their school has at least a few teachers who are simply going through the motions, and just 14% say it is easy to remove incompetent teachers.

In a new survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research organization, public school teachers say they love their work and are confident in their ability to reach and teach mostbut not allstudents. But a majority (59%) feels that they are unfairly being held accountable for raising student achievement when so much that affects learning is beyond their control.

Stand by Me: What Teachers Really Think about Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters is one of the most comprehensive examinations to date of American teachers views on unions, tenure, pay-for-performance, alternative certification and other issues. Public Agendas research consistently finds teachers to be strong supporters of standards, and teachers acknowledge that not all of their colleagues perform at acceptable levels. But a sense of vulnerability, along with fears of politics and favoritism, make them loyal to the tenure system, loyal to their unions and highly skeptical about pay tied to student test scores.

According to Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth, Teachers come to the table with an acute sense that few understand the challenges they face and that many outside the classroom underestimate what is needed to improve student learning. For those advocating changes in the teaching profession, Stand by Me gives voice to the deep commitment that teachers feel to their students and to their profession, but also to their feelings of vulnerability and mistrust.

How Do You Measure Success?

Teachers voice strong support for high academic standards and 87% say students should pass a standardized test to be promoted.

But they are clearly grappling with the pros and cons of current testing policies. Most (53%) say that standardized tests are seriously flawed, and 1 in 6 would abandon testing completely. Just 18% say tests are meaningful and their district uses them well. But in the end, most agree that schools need at least some kind of standardized assessment.

Teachers worry about how tests are currently being used. A St. Louis teacher complained, well have students who will come into the high school with an inability to read-they cant add or subtract-and were supposed to perform miracles.

Its just not possible, according to the teachers in the study to single-handedly overcome all of the hurdles that invariably seep into their classroom. Only 11% of teachers are very confident that their hardest-to-reach students will be successful by the end of the year.

Open to Some Forms of Merit Pay

A majority of teachers say administrators need a lot (39%) or a little (17%) more freedom to reward outstanding teachers. And strong majorities endorse paying some teachers more than others in certain circumstances. 70%, for example, support financial incentives for teachers in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools.

Two in three teachers (67%) believe that teachers who consistently work harder, putting in more time and effort should be paid more. 57% support financial incentives for teachers accredited by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

But tying teacher pay to test scores or other achievement measures finds little favor. Only 38% of teachers favor merit pay for teachers whose students routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests. Proposals tying pay to student improvement or to a combination of factors such as reading levels, teacher evaluations and classroom tests find teachers about evenly split.

Despite their openness to some forms of merit pay, many teachers worry about unintended consequences. By a 63% to 22% margin, they believe that merit pay would foster unhealthy competition and jealousy rather than motivate teachers. And 52% say that merit pay would mean principals would play favorites rather than reward good teachers (23%). Less than half (42%) favor paying more to teachers with harder-to-find skills such as science or math expertise.

Teachers to Unions: Be There for Me

Teachers support-but are hardly exuberant about-their unions. Just 19% say the national union almost always reflects their values and preferences. But most teachers believe their lives would be far worse if the unions werent there to protect them. Fully 81% believe that working conditions and salaries would be much worse without collective bargaining.

Teachers say they need their unions to protect them against capricious administrators and out-of-the-blue accusations by students or parents. 81% say that without their union teachers would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power. 77% say that without their union teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn. As one suburban teacher observed, We live in a world [where] all they have to do is whisper that we hit them, and were gone.


Teachers acknowledge that getting tenure is neither a long nor difficult process; 73% work in districts that make tenure available after 3 or 4 years. Most teachers (58%) say that when teachers gain tenure in their district, it is no guarantee that they have worked hard and proved themselves.

Teachers also recognize that tenure sometimes protects the incompetent. Nearly 8 in 10 say there are at least a few teachers in their building who fail to do a good job. And over a third (36%) say that it is too hard for administrators to remove any but the very worst.

But again, vulnerability and fear of politics and cost-cutting seem to outweigh inclination toward change. Almost 6 in 10 (58%) say tenure protects teachers from district politics, favoritism and the threat of losing their jobs to newcomers who could work for less. Only 23% think that good teachers dont have to worry about tenure. And only 23% say sometimes everyone would be better off if the union stepped aside and let the administration fire incompetent teachers.

Teachers are divided on their willingness to trade the benefits of tenure for higher pay. Among those who have tenure, 28% would trade it for a $5K pay hike, and the same number would consider it if the increase were a lot higher. Just over a third (34%) would rather hold on to tenure.

New Paths to Teaching

Teachers are somewhat open to the idea of alternative certification. 50% think its a good idea, compared to 32% who say there should be only one recognized way to become a teacher. Of those who know colleagues who have pursued an alternative path into the profession, 65% say these colleagues are good or excellent teachers.

But most teachers reject the notion that anyone can walk into a classroom and teach. Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) say it is absolutely essential for those who enter teaching from other professions or other routes to go through training that mirrors the traditional certification process. A Texas teacher said, I can tell you for a fact, walking into that classroom, I dont care how much college you havewalking in there and looking at those smiling facesTo me its insulting to hear people in the business world say, I can always teach.They may understand how to work a computerbut do you understand how to get under a kid?

Different Circumstances/Different Views

Stand by Me found that teachers with different experiences often hold differing views:

  • High school teachers (27%) are less likely than elementary school teachers (42%) to feel very confident about getting through to most of their students by the end of the year.
  • New teachers (55%) are more likely than veteran teachers (33%) to say districts should be able to use criteria other than years on the job and education to financially reward teachers.
  • Southern teachers are more open to merit pay proposals-even when it comes to using test scores to determine teachers pay. 50% of Southern teachers favor it, compared to 36% in the Midwest, 34% in the West and just 26% in the Northeast.
  • Just 35% of teachers in schools with all or mostly minority pupils say their school is very good when it comes to having a safe and respectful atmosphere, compared to 68% of teachers in schools with few minority students.

Stand by Me was funded by The Broad Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Sidney J. Weinberg, Jr. Foundation.

Stand by Me is based on a national random sample mail survey of 1,345 K-12 public school teachers conducted in Spring 2003. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. The survey was preceded by six focus groups conducted in sites across the country as well as 20 in-depth interviews with experts in the field.

The study was written by Public Agenda Senior Vice Presidents Steve Farkas, Jean Johnson and Ann Duffett, with the assistance of staff members Leslie Moye and Jackie Vine. Full copies of this and all Public Agenda education reports since 1998 are available free of charge in PDF format at You can order a printed version for $10 plus $2 shipping and handling by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610. Quantity discounts are available.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

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