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Sandra Stotsky: On the Disconnect between the General Public and Teachers

Apr 25, 2015 by

An Interview with Sandra Stotsky: On the Disconnect between the General Public and Teachers

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Recently, I reviewed a book by Paul Peterson (see link below) and interviewed Peterson about his research.

In general, there seems to be a gap or disconnect between what the general public thinks about teachers and what they do, and the teachers themselves. I realize this is not your area of expertise, but could you comment?

I agree that there are gaps between what the public thinks about what teachers do and what teachers see as their reality in the schools. I am now a candidate for the Brookline School Committee (4 people running for 3 seats), and I am just beginning to talk to the general public. It is not clear what is to be done about these gaps. I am committed to bringing research evidence to bear on curriculum programs that may be cut or reduced in the future. But a major problem I face as a candidate for a local school board in a very sophisticated community is the lack of clear information on the effectiveness of most if not all of these programs. School administrators everywhere want more money to support whatever they are doing, even though it is a well-known fact that the U.S. already spends more money per child than any other country, and with little to show for it–in general. So, what should be done? Not a clue in this well-documented book on Disconnects.

2) The general public seems to feel that more money should go to education—but when they get more information about how much money is currently going to education, their views seem to change. Your thoughts?

So far as I can tell, the public’s views are rational. Property taxes keep going up, in part to support increasing demands by the public schools. But, despite the increases in funding public education for the past 50 years or more, we are regularly told how badly our students are doing in K-12. It is rational to wonder why more and more money is needed to support a declining school system.

3) Merit pay is one of those issues that there seems to be a “disconnect”. The general public feels that good teachers should be rewarded— the teachers, however do not want to be held responsible for students who may not be motivated, or may have special needs ( learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, intellectual disabilities, autism, vision and or hearing impairment). Is there any middle ground?

We could reconsider several changes made decades ago. (1) We put all teachers on a single-salary schedule so that the high school calculus teacher makes no more than the Kindergarten teacher. Perhaps we need to restore the idea that academic effort should be rewarded. (2) We need to rethink the academic requirements for admission to a teacher preparation program and reward only high academic achievers in high school with admission (as Finland and most other European countries do). K-12 teaching can be a secure life-time profession, and rewarding high academic strivers with a teaching position would get us more effective teachers, so far as high quality research suggests. It’s worth a try, at least.

4) One interesting “disconnect” is that the people in Peterson’s survey felt that things were bad in education nationwide, but not in their local area. (They refer to this as the NIMBY factor – Not In My Backyard ). Is this people just being narrow minded, or something else?

It’s probably the generally friendly relationships that develop between students and their teachers. In addition, most parents would not know how to evaluate their children’s teachers. In an age of grade-inflation, why would they criticize their children’s teachers if their children receive high grades?

5) Peterson , and his colleagues, Henderson and West provide one statement that jumps off the page at me-” The American public is hopelessly uninformed about school districts fiscal realities” ( p. 59 ) In your mind how much does the average citizen need to know about the local school district’s finances and budget? Should this information be made public?

Of course this information should be public. But school budgets are often not presented in ways the average citizen can understand. Schools in MA have autonomous budgets with respect to line items. Town Meetings can approve or disapprove of the total amount, but how that amount is spent is up to school board members, who may simply go along with whatever their school administrators tell them. The huge increases in technology costs in recent years (which will continue) are but one example. Is there a school board anywhere that has asked for a clear breakdown and evidence of what its technology is giving them with respect to student learning (not testing)?

6) Another shocker, at least to me is ” the public underestimates average teacher salaries by 30 percent”. This seems to me to be a very large gap. Your thoughts?

I have never seen personnel costs broken down so that each administrator’s and teacher’s salary was listed separately. How could the public know what a teacher earns when a budget page may list simply “FTE (full-time equivalent) personnel costs.” Maybe there are communities that list what each teacher makes, but I haven’t seen such lists.

7) Peterson and his colleagues indicate that the general public is somewhat uninformed about student performance, yet when provided this information, there is a “dramatic increase in public support for universal vouchers”.

It is not clear what the point of this “finding” is. If a recommendation was to give each parent credit for an appropriate per/student portion of the total school tax money available to a local school district, then one could have a public discussion about the choices that could be available to all parents, including those who send their children to sectarian schools. (I am told that in some if not all Canadian provinces, all parents receive an equal amount of the school funds available for sending their child to the school of their choice (religious or not, special language or not). Public schools get building maintenance/repair funds that non-public schools don’t. But tax credits or vouchers are available to all parents for their choice of school. The Peterson et al book doesn’t get into the implications of this finding, however.

8) While merit pay was only cursorily examined the authors did find that teachers did want help with the “mainstreaming of students with behavioral and emotional problems (p. 110) Does this say anything to you about teacher training programs?

It also says something about public policies that may not be completely thought through. How much help are teachers given in such situations? How are the academic needs of the other children in a class addressed? I once taught a very large grade 3 class, and one very emotionally disturbed student took a great deal of my instructional time away from the other children. This child needed, and eventually got, a very small special class taught by a teacher with professional training to address her behavior and help her to learn how to read better than I could on my own.

9) David Steiner also reviewed this book ( but focused more on education reform. You have been involved in various types of teacher training reforms. Is the general public in favor of reforms and what types of reforms?

I don’t think the general public is aware of the kind of reforms that could be made to teacher training programs. They do not know what teacher training even consists of today. Nor do state legislators.

10) In sum, in your mind, is there a disconnect or a gap, as Peterson and colleagues posit, or is there apathy on the part of the general public, or is the education behemoth simply too big to bring about appreciable changes?

I would agree there are gaps, but the book doesn’t offer any ideas on what should be done about these gaps. There is nothing in the Common Core project (either the standards or the curriculum or tests based on them) that addresses these gaps. So far as we can tell at present, this project will exacerbate the gaps because there is so little if any dialogue between state boards of education, state departments of education, school administrators, teachers, and parents about what is happening in the school curriculum. Parents have been regularly told not to get involved in whatever is going on in their children’s schools or with their homework. If state legislatures and local school board members still (six years after state adoption of Common Core standards) don’t know what these are or what their implications are), then the gaps may be deliberate–a possibility that Peterson et al don’t address.

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