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In Teachers We Trust - But How Much?

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Following is a post from Guest Blogger Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt, a senior researcher at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institute for Research and coauthor of "Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform.

In the recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools, 72% of respondents reported having confidence and trust in our nation's public school teachers. Sixty five percent feel the same about our principals. Not a bad note on which to usher in the new school year!

Yet, this overwhelming confidence in our nation's educators - confirmed in Gallup polls for the past several years- runs counter to some current educational reforms. More prescriptive "teacher-proof" curricula, evaluation systems that cross-check teacher and principal judgment with test-score and other data, new standards and assessments, and salary levels that most top teachers say don't match their skills and effort point in the opposite direction.

What explains this disconnect between public trust/confidence in teachers and public policy? One potential explanation is that those who do not trust and have confidence in teachers are often very vocal and influential. If this is so, how can the less vocal, more positive majority have more say about policy? And what will it take to earn the trust and confidence of the vocal minority?

A second possible explanation for the disconnect between public attitudes and public policy is definitional. Of course, no single factor explains mistrust. But it could be that teachers' honesty, positive intent, dedication, or even general competence isn't at issue. Rather, it's the sense that teachers' work is somehow less challenging than that of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. If this hunch is right, how can teachers and other educational leaders convey the complexities and sophistication of teachers' work to policymakers and the public?

Last week's EdWeek piece, " Putting Teachers on the A-List," solicited a range of reader opinion on how to inculcate the respect the teaching profession deserves--a paradox expressed like this by one teacher:

"The general public has this perception because they don't have any idea what the job of a teacher is like...The skill and determination required to be a successful teacher rivals any other career...modern-day teachers have similar levels of legal and ethical responsibilities to uphold [as doctors, engineers or lawyers]... getting all 25 of your students in a class to get their two-digit arithmetic in a limited number of days is a huge challenge; and summers off doesn't make up for the long hours during the school year (just ask an accountant if they would enjoy a ten-month tax season.)...On the other hand, any day after school of my teaching career that I went to a local Starbucks or Barnes & Noble to grade tests, I was always greeted with positive comments and thanks for being a teacher and doing a job that is so tough...Ten years in the public eye as a teacher, and nothing but respect."

Other commenters noted other tough challenges in elevating respect for the teaching profession:

· Combatting negative media portrayals of teachers

· Addressing public attitudes toward gender equality and a female-dominated profession

· Raising U.S. scores on international tests

· Decreasing the national focus on test scores

· Improving teachers' salaries

· Creating and showcasing more examples of teacher leadership

Some key initiatives to increase respect for the teaching profession are under way already. This fall, the Teacher Salary Project will launch a governors' campaign to raise statehouses' awareness of the need to draw in top college talent by professionalizing teachers' salaries and status. The U.S. Department of Education's teacher-led RESPECT initiative (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching) has a new Blueprint for promoting policies that elevate the teaching profession. And projects like Everyone at the Table provide resources for teachers to lead the way on discussions of reform with their colleagues.

One promising finding by Gallup pollsters this time is that younger generations are more positive than older ones about teachers. Fully 78% of those aged 18-39 have trust and confidence in our public school teachers. Compare that to 69% among those aged 40 and up.

With attention riveted on teacher performance, this is the year to focus national attention on building respect for teachers' commitment and for teachers' craft-- among those who admire teachers and those who don't. Doing so could help reverse the current 20-year low in teacher morale while attracting the best of the next generation to the teaching profession and also separate sensible reforms from those based on unwarranted mistrust.

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