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AFT: Current Ed. Policies Don't Work, Are Unpopular With Parents

The president of the American Federation of Teachers will today reiterate her call that many current trends in education policymaking aren't working, and she plans to enlist new allies in that fight: the parents of public school students.

According to prepared remarks for the keynote address at the union's TEACH professional-development conference today, Weingarten will use the results of a newly released poll of 1,000 parents to bolster her argument that basing teachers' evaluations on test scores, closing schools, and cutting budgets are hurting schools and teachers, and are deeply unpopular with parents.

"People are beginning to see that the emperors of reform have no clothes. And as recent polling shows, parents are seeing this too," she'll say this afternoon. "Decades of top-down edicts, mass school closures, privatization, and test fixation with sanctions instead of support haven't moved the needle—not in the right direction, at least."

According to the poll, parents don't like many current education policies.

  • 57 percent felt there is too much emphasis on testing, and testing actually tied with lack of funding for the top problems parents said were facing education today.
  • 68 percent of parents said they wanted a "good quality neighborhood public school" over "more choices of which schools I can send my children to."
  • A majority of parents did not like proposals to reduce salaries and benefits for teachers, close down low-performing schools, end master's degree pay premiums for teachers, or increase the length of the school year.
  • In one notable exception, 72 percent of parents felt that having states adopt a common set of academic standards would be a positive step, a finding that held up even for self-identified Republicans.

Some findings are less surprising: Parents don't favor increasing class sizes, laying off teachers, or cutting school budgets.

The poll also indicates that parents view teachers more positively than just a few years ago: 71 percent said teachers in their local public school were good or excellent, compared with 62 percent in 2010. Also, 34 percent said unions had a positive impact on the quality of education, compared with 24 percent three years earlier.

Financial Concerns

Weingarten's speech is shot through with the subtext of cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago, with their pending layoffs and school closures. It draws on the rhetoric of folks such as New York University pundit Diane Ravitch, with its condemnation of "market-based reformers." And it calls for reinvesting in many of the proposals the AFT has espoused over the past few years, such as building community schools, supporting teachers, and carefully implementing the Common Core State Standards.

"Reclaiming the promise of public education is about fighting for neighborhood public schools that are safe, welcoming places for teaching and learning. Reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that teachers are well-prepared, are supported, and have time to collaborate. Reclaiming the promise is about enabling them to teach an engaging curriculum that includes art and music and the sciences. And reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that kids have access to wraparound services to meet their emotional, social, and health needs," Weingarten says.

The speech doesn't acknowledge, though, that some of changes are being made not solely for alleged educative reasons but also because of the very real economic problems those locations are facing. These include historical declines in student enrollment and the pressure of public-pensions commitments that are now coming home to roost.(Debate rages, of course, about whether the financial situation is as severe as the districts claim and whether their proposed fixes will actually save money.)

Finally, as always with polls, take some of the results with a grain of salt and examine the questions' phrasing carefully. Take, for instance, a bunch of paired statements asking parents to select the one they most agree with. Unsurprisingly, they tend to favor the idea that it's better to "treat teachers like professionals" than to "regularly remove poorly performing teachers." Another question starts off by saying, "America's schools are failing our kids. The key to improving education today is to put students first." The alternative? "Making schools better places for children to learn also makes them better places for teachers to work." Mmmm.

Also worth noting: A few results appear contradictory. Nearly half surveyed had a negative impression of using test scores in teacher evaluation, but 68 percent approved of paying teachers more if their students show gains in academic achievement.

The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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