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Book Suggests Teachers Are Standing in the Way of School Improvement

Updated, 5/5/14

Harvard Professor Paul E. Peterson, perhaps best known for his work on school choice, has a new book out this week with the provocative title of Teachers Versus the Public: What Americans Think About Schools and How to Fix Them. Co-authored by Michael Henderson and Martin West, the book is based on a six-year, "experimental" study of teacher and public opinion.


According to a press release, the authors point to significant "gaps between what teachers and the public think is best for the education of our nation's children," including on issues such as performance pay, teacher evaluation, annual testing, school choice, teacher hiring and tenure, and school spending. The findings suggest that "it's not just big union bosses standing in the way of school improvement and reform, but that teachers play a large part, too," the release says.  

An apparent point of emphasis in the book, meanwhile, is a related finding from the study showing that members of the general public are far more likely than teachers to modify their views on education based on new or additional information provided:

On most issues, teacher opinion does not change in response to new information nearly as much as it does for the public as a whole. In fact, the gap between what teachers and the public think about school reform grows even wider when both teachers and the public are given more information about current school performance, current expenditure levels, and current teacher pay.

For Peterson and his co-authors, this offers hope that policymakers and reformers can counter teachers' supposed stranglehold on education policy by introducing "rigorous standards and greater transparency about student achievement and education funding. ..."

Teacher Peter Greene of Curmudgucation, on the other hand, questions Peterson's apparent methodology (particularly with respect to the "new information" provided to respondents), and charges that the study is tantamount to a marketing tactic in the education-reform debates:

So what we've actually got here is a marketing study framing how to achieve more victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. The way to beat our enemy, that vast army of Slobovian teachers, is to provide 'new information' to the public ('Get your New Information right here! You know it's fresh because I just made it up!') and in particular, to make sure that CCSS is set up to 'prove' that their schools are failing. ... This isn't really about teachers versus the public—it's about teachers versus the reformsters for public hearts and minds. So, one part marketing research, one part explicit attack on teachers.

On a side note, the topic of teachers' alleged resistance to school-improvement efforts came up (though not directly in connection with Peterson's book) in a webinar on teacher recruitment and retention we held earlier this week with Susan Moore Johnson, also a Harvard professor. Johnson argued that many teachers are justifiably wary of reform initiatives because they see constant waves of mandated changes come and go, often to the detriment of instructional continuity.

She also said that teachers are skeptical that changes derived from corporate America, such as performance pay, are always applicable to schools. "I would not want teachers to blithely accept any reform that someone outside of education proposes, and we have a lot of them," she said.

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