As they strive to improve their schools, many school leaders are often consumed with addressing the content on standardized tests associated with No Child Left Behind. However, results from a Gallup survey* that investigated Americans' priorities regarding the nation's education system suggest that Americans tend to believe that teachers, rather than testing, are most important to classroom success.
It's the Teacher
The poll gave respondents a list of characteristics and asked them to rate each one in two ways: how important it is to a very successful school, and whether they feel it's likely to be present in their local schools (see "Education Poll Uncovers Opportunities for Schools" in Related Items). The new results provide an interesting lens through which to view possible approaches to school improvement. Of the five highest-rated items on the importance scale -- "mastery of the basics," "fair treatment of all students," "caring teachers," "teachers with strong subject matter knowledge," and "emphasizing students' strengths" -- all but the first have more to do with teacher performance than curricular content.
Most Americans seem to perceive that teachers are at the crux of school quality. Moreover, educational researchers such as William Sanders and Dan Goldhaber have provided evidence that teacher quality accounts for the lion's share of difference in student achievement -- more so than students' race or income level. Gallup has conducted extensive research on customer engagement that spans a wide variety of service industries. That research consistently underscored the crucial importance of front-line, customer-facing employees in the creation of enduringly strong and engaged customer relationships. In schools, there is a "customer-facing" counterpart: the teacher. Acknowledgement of that essential engagement-building role is one reason why Americans hold teachers in such high regard.
Walking the Talk
That's where the disconnect comes in. Though the public gravitates toward teacher-related items in assessing school quality, the teacher often seems largely ignored in school improvement activities -- with regard to both individual districts and national initiatives such as No Child Left Behind. School leaders and policy-makers focus on moving from one curricular reform to another, seemingly searching for a magic process that works for all teachers and every student. Curricula reduce teaching to "do" and "say" scripts, effectively making teachers assembly line workers. All too frequently, teachers are treated as part of the problem, rather than the most basic element of the solution.
Underestimating the teacher's importance to school quality has two major consequences:
1) Inadequate attention to the recruiting process. Hiring star-quality teachers should be one of the major efforts in every school organization, but often the effort receives lip service. Few districts use research-based systems to identify teachers with the "right stuff" for the job. Instead, principals with little training in how to interview and select teachers rely on "gut" reactions. And the process is frequently ponderous; piles of files and delays often force outstanding applicants, who can shop around in today's teacher market, to go elsewhere. District human resources representatives and principals are pressured to fill positions, but they should also be accountable for hiring teachers who represent the cream of the crop.
2) When effective teachers are hired they too often don't receive the treatment and respect they deserve. One statistic illustrates the problematic work environments teachers often face: Nationwide, it's estimated that between 40% and 50% of teachers hired this year will leave teaching altogether within five years.
Across the country, Gallup estimates that only about 29% of U.S. employees are engaged in their workplaces, and schools do not seem to be any different. Based on Gallup research with teachers, it appears that teachers often don't have the materials and equipment they need to do their jobs -- even in affluent school districts, teachers spend their own money to buy needed items. Many teachers receive little recognition, except from students, and that's not enough. The isolation of teaching results in few best friends at work, and teachers often don't believe their opinions count in their schools. Frequently, teachers don't receive useful feedback about their progress.
As public entities, schools must provide value to the community in order to maintain public support. What do Americans most expect from schools? That they contain teachers who help students master the basics, treat all children fairly, care about each student as a person, know their subject matter, and emphasize children's strengths. Schools can deliver on this vision of success only if they make the right decisions about how to select and treat teachers.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,019 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 3-29, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.