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The Public Trusts Teachers. . . To Do What Exactly?

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Guest Column by Kim Farris-Berg

Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) and Gallup published the results of their annual poll of "The Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools" back in August 2013, and one of the findings has been on my mind ever since. That is, 72 percent of Americans have trust and confidence in the women and men who teach in public schools. Among Americans under the age of 40, that number goes up: 78 percent trust teachers!

That's an exciting statistic, and it was widely reported and celebrated. Yet it seems to me that, "Do you trust teachers?" is an opening question that deserves some follow-up. I can't shake my desire to understand: What, exactly, does the public trust teachers to do? The answer to that question is important for teachers, unions, legislators, and others to know, especially in the context of public policies such as the Common Core and tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

Also important to figure out is: Do teachers have the authority to do whatever it is that the public trusts them to do? Perhaps PDK/Gallup, or even you, think that the scope of teachers' authority is well-known amongst the public. But, as a parent of young children who regularly interacts with other parents of young children in a school setting, I'm not so sure.

At Back-To-School Night, my son's kindergarten teacher took questions from the parents. Some of these questions assumed the teacher has authority in areas she does not. "Will this curriculum adequately prepare my child for first grade?" one parent asked after the teacher circulated a handout that she created to explain how reading, writing, math, and developmental activities will fit into the 3.5 hour school day. Another parent suggested, "All-day kindergarten would give you much more time to prepare the children, wouldn't it?"

The teacher politely and carefully explained that curriculum and scheduling decisions are not hers to make. State and district leaders call those shots, and her handout reflects what they've decided. She does her best to teach the children in the context of state- and district-level decisions.

The next week, at a second Back-to-School Night, my daughter's second-grade teacher showed great enthusiasm for the Common Core, explaining how the new curriculum is inspiring her to make positive changes in her classroom to help students stay on track for college and career readiness. I'm guessing that other teachers did the same that evening, because parents have been buzzing about "Common Core" ever since. District leaders haven't sent out anything to explain what it is and why California has adopted it, so parents are trying to figure it out for themselves. They genuinely wonder, "Are our teachers right to be so enthused?"

Few seem to be aware that state leaders adopted the Common Core, not the teachers in our school or even our district leaders. I get the sense that a good number of parents think they could somehow stop our school from using the Common Core, or speed its take-up, depending on what they learn about it. They don't realize they'd have to stage a revolt of far greater scope if that's what they decided to do. It's important to note here that the parents at my kids' school aren't out of the ordinary. Another finding in the PDK/Gallup poll was that that most Americans don't know about the Common Core and those who do don't understand it.

Observing these parents' misperceptions, and rereading additional PDK/Gallup findings, I grow increasingly curious. Would the reasons why the public trusts teachers line up with what teachers actually have the authority to do? And what about the 28 percent who don't trust teachers? What are the reasons for their distrust? Again, does their reasoning line-up with what teachers actually have the authority to change?

PDK and Gallup, or Public Agenda, or The Pew Research Center could learn the answers. They could dig deeper into why the public trusts teachers and determine what level of authority the public believes teachers have. These findings could be very important to know.

If the public trusts teachers and erroneously believes most teachers can make choices such as whether to use Common Core and have all-day kindergarten, then that would indicate that the public is under-informed about who calls the shots. Teachers could soon have 72 percent of the public blaming them, or crediting them, for the outcomes of choices they didn't make. A finding like this would also call into question the public's support (or lack of support) for policy proposals related to accountability. If the public knew that teachers don't control the curriculum, for example, would it expect teachers to be accountable for the results of it?

If, on the other hand, the public trusts teachers to do a good job of implementing choices that people outside of schools determine to be best for students, then that would indicate that the public understands the position most teachers are currently in.

As we explore these questions further, it would be good idea to assume that we don't have a handle on potential poll responses. Poll designers would do well to have focus groups weigh-in on the design. Case in point: I informally asked my personal Facebook network, "Do YOU trust teachers to do their job? And, if so, please describe what you think is 'the job' that you trust them to do." There were seven female responders in six hours, and their answers might surprise you.

Five of them indicated that they generally trust teachers to work in the best interest of the individual students they serve. A few of the five pointed out that this requires teachers to have the capacity to balance the conflicting academic and nonacademic goals put upon them by various non-teachers including governments, administrators, parents, and students. Two said they worry that teachers aren't well supported (presumably, to work on this balance). Two said they trust most teachers to work in partnership with parents in the best interest of each child, and they see teachers doing their best at this even with fiscal and class size limitations.

One mother, whose three children have been schooled in Chicago, Southern California and North Carolina, said she doesn't trust teachers. For teachers to earn her trust, they'd have to be doing more to stop what she sees as a trend against differentiation. She doesn't trust that teachers will take on this challenge because they are "overworked and underpaid." She is frustrated that she and her husband are left to do the job of giving her oldest child learning materials that are at his level.

Interesting. These women basically said they trust (or want to be able to trust) teachers to work around constraints for the sake of students' individual progression. Considering this perspective, finding that "the public trusts teachers" might not be an indicator of the public's overall satisfaction with schools and schooling. Instead it might be an indicator of the public's confidence that teachers are doing their best within what the public perceives are dismal circumstances. But, then again, it might not. We'll have to ask much more of the public to find out.

Don't get me wrong: I am not positing that my observations of the parents at my school, and my (very, very) little Facebook poll, are at all scientific. I only share them with you to make that case that saying "the public trusts teachers" really doesn't tell us a whole lot. There is a lot we don't know about why teachers have the public's trust. And "the why" might tell us a whole lot more about how we ought to approach school design and management in the years to come.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Southern California and is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

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