Back to School – What Lies Ahead?

Education’s numbers are impressive. More than 50 million children are safely enrolled in public schools as you read this. Another 5.2 million are attending private schools, and an estimated 1.5 million are being homeschooled.

We will spend close to $600 billion on public education this year, roughly $11,800 per child. What are we getting for the money? In her new book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch argues that most of our public schools are better than they have ever been. As you may also have heard, however, Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World argues that our schools are not measuring up, not when compared to schools in other countries.{{1}}

Dueling arguments aside, I think this school year is going to bring into bold relief some disconnects between and among various interest groups in education, starting with the Common Core. Inside schools, everyone is talking about the Common Core National Standards, the math and English standards developed outside of Washington, DC and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. However, outside of schools, most American voters–62%–say that they have never even heard of it! That’s one of the findings of the annual Gallup/PDK poll on education released two weeks ago. In fact, 55% of parents of school-age children say they haven’t heard of it! And most of those who recognize the term say they don’t really understand it, meaning that this highly-touted reform embraced by policy makers has a tough hill to climb.

In fact, if the Gallup/PDK poll is to be believed, the American public is not particularly happy with the nation’s education policy makers’ support for more standardized testing and for using student test scores to judge teachers and principals. The gulf between the two groups is wide: for example, the public has changed its mind about how test results are used, but policy makers have not. In 2012 52% of the public said it was a good idea to use test scores to evaluate teachers, but one year later only 41% say it makes sense. That’s a huge change. Are policy makers listening?

Gallup/PDK asked whether more testing is helping or hurting education. Again there’s been a major shift. In 2012 only 28% said more testing was hurting education; that number jumped to 36% this year. Today only 22% believe that testing is making education better, a drop of six percentile points.

Policy makers may be wringing their hands about the deplorable state of public education, but in 2013 parents and the public gave local schools their highest grades ever, with 53% giving their local school, the one they presumably know the most about, either an A or a B. (As they do every year, respondents gave schools across the country a grade of C or lower.)

The poll reports that 70% oppose vouchers, a huge increase over the 55% who opposed vouchers in 2012. Support for public charter schools remained consistently high, with about two-thirds supporting them.

The most striking disconnect between parents/general public and policymakers is in the area of teachers. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that most policy makers do not trust teachers, and that starts at the top. The federal government’s “Race to the Top” requires states to evaluate teachers based on test scores if they want federal “Race” dollars or a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Some states have jumped on that bandwagon with alacrity, most recently Tennessee, which has created a system much like that imposed upon Washington, DC’s public schools by former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.{{2}}

In sharp contrast, the Gallup/PDK poll reports that more than 70% of Americans have trust and confidence in the women and men who teach in public schools. And the percentage is even higher for Americans under the age of 40.

Who are our teachers? One of every 100 Americans is a public school teacher, 3.3 million in all. The average teacher will earn $56,000 this year, which–adjusted for inflation–is only 3% more than the average teacher earned 22 years ago, in 1991!

The poll suggests to me that the ongoing ‘war on teachers’{{3}} may have taken a critical turn in the teachers’ favor, in the hearts and minds of parents and other adult Americans.

The challenge now is to change the way the folks at the top think and behave, because public policies based on mistrust are counter-productive and seem to be driving good people out of the classroom.

That exodus we can measure through exit interviews. What we cannot keep track of is the number of talented young people who pick up on the more or less ‘official’ denigration of the profession and come to the conclusion that teaching is not for them.


[[1]]1. Later this month I will review both books.[[1]]

[[2]]2. I have reported at length about the flaws in that approach.[[2]]

[[3]]3. I write about it in The Influence of Teachers.[[3]]

15 thoughts on “Back to School – What Lies Ahead?

  1. I would love to think that “the ‘war on teachers’ may have taken a critical turn in the teachers’ favor.” However, I must disagree that policy makers do not trust teachers. The greater truth is that they must PROJECT that they do not trust teachers in order to profit their corporate friends on teachers’ backs. Propaganda, pure and simple. The question remains, as you point out, whether the populace is informed enough to fight huge corporate dollars. Even as you write, and I comment, the Koch Brothers are pouring money into school board elections. And I think you know they’re not the only ones.


  2. I think parents, especially, have always trusted teachers. That has not been the issue. The issue, not addressed very often, is that teaching is still considered a gender based profession which is not considered to be worth supported fiscally, the way other professions are. While most teachers are individually trusted to do what is best for your child, their student, the profession, as a whole, is discounted. Policy makers speak only to each other. Actual classroom teacher are seldom involved in the decisions. On state education committees I, a teacher, have insinuated myself onto, all the other members were administrators, school board members, DOE staff, and some non-education professionals. Where are the teachers? In the classroom, of course, being trusted with our children. Teachers not only need to be involved in the discussion, but in the decision/rule making. Practitioners do know the system and what needs to change.
    The support for charter schools in the PDK poll suggests all schools should be considered charter schools which don’t have to follow national or state decreed standards. Let’s give all our public schools the authority to provide the direction for the school through parent, teacher, student collaboration with legitimate “education” boards, instead of “political” school boards, the way many successful charter schools do. If charter schools are being successful, let’s use the successful ones as a model and convert all our public schools into the charter model. It would also give the local educators, those we trust, more voice in how to educate our children.


  3. Perhaps the American public is finally figuring out that NCLB was a corporate raid on the American school system, intent on subverting its goals and practices and depleting its financial resources by requiring investment in private “remedies” for fictional deficiencies.

    Who says Gates lost his touch?


  4. When I read your teaser email (“education policymakers…do not trust teachers,” etc.) and the subsequent blog that seemed to refer to a “‘war on teachers'” as an accepted fact, I actually did not think it was written by you, but by the NEA or similar. That kind of polarizing verbiage does nothing to increase the quality of the national dialogue on education, and is far beneath you, Mr. Merrow.

    Your statement that “The average teacher will earn $56,000 this year, which–adjusted for inflation–is only 3% more than the average teacher earned 22 years ago, in 1991!” shows a profound misunderstanding about the economic realities we all face. In fact, according to the NY Times ( ) the average college-educated male in the US earns about 12 percent LESS than his counterpart did in 1969 and the numbers are worse for non-college educated (all of whom, let’s not forget, are paying teachers’ salaries from their own dwindling finances).

    We are all in this together, Mr. Merrow. Let’s stop the hyperbolic talk and get to solutions.

    I have recommended your site to others as being an example of great education reporting, but this is disappointing. Please explain.


    • Elizabeth,
      I appreciate your previous support and regret that I have disappointed you this time.
      I write in some detail about what I perceive to be a ‘war on teachers’ in my 2011 book, The Influence of Teachers, and so I won’t go into much detail here. Quickly, there are two camps, one arguing that what’s wrong with education is the quality of teachers, and so the solution is ‘better people.’ The other side says the problem is not the people but the job itself, and so the solution is to make teaching a better job. The former position, held by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, a host of hedge fund people, has been ‘winning’ this battle. Where once we trusted teachers, today the system is built on verification (and mistrust). And so we have Race to the Top and its insistence that student data be used to evaluate teachers and principals.
      Diane Ravitch has been the strong voice on the other side of this divide, but she has a megaphone compared to the weapons in the hands of her opponents. Her opponents say, disingenuously, that what is needed to turn poor children’s lives around are ‘great teachers.’ That argument sets up teachers and schools to fail.
      In my book, I argue that this ‘war’ is irrelevant to the needs of students, by the way. They are forced to attend ‘regurgitation factories’ when they need an educational environment that challenges them to pose (and answer) questions. They live in a sea of information and need to learn how to figure out what is true (I.E., to distinguish between information/data and knowledge/wisdom).
      Re money, I had not seen that data, but it does not undercut my point that teachers are losing ground, even as the society is making their jobs much more difficult.


      • I disagree with the above comment, John. I think this is an excellent report! –And I am not a public school teacher, just a strong supporter of public education who finds the war against teachers abhorrent.


      • Thank you for your insightful reply. I have read your book “Below C Level,” but not “The Influence of Teachers,” so will order and read.

        How are teachers losing ground relative to the average male taxpayer? No, they are gaining ground relatively–and quite a bit in fact. This is a fundamental part of the “mistrust” issue—please allow me to explain.

        In the past four years, I have had a chance to campaign for four candidates for school board. As I went door to door, the issue that most people wanted the candidates to address was fiscal responsibility. People are unemployed, have lost homes, are finding kids’ college and their retirement a distant dream. They hear the constant drumbeat from administration that the schools are underfunded even though the admin and teachers are among the best-paid people in our community. Coming up with the tax bill is often a huge struggle (I just drove by another home of a wonderful family that is now vacant due to foreclosure–they were probably making that “pay taxes vs. the mortgage” calculation for a long time before they had to admit defeat.) In our community, any “mistrust” you refer to probably stems from this. Although people love (most of) our teachers as individuals, they question why the teaching profession does not honor the same rules as the ones that they are subject to in terms of hiring and promoting the best people. They want to see their hard-earned money be spent wisely, on yes, “great” teachers (and respectful administrators), not some that actually harm kids’ intellectual curiosity and waste their time.

        How is this “disingenuous?” How is this a “war on teachers?” How does wanting this set up “teachers and schools to fail?” This tone is so polarizing, when we are actually all on the same page in terms of wanting to elevate the teaching profession… And, finally, again, how are teachers “losing ground” financially—a statement many people resent as it makes them feel like they are being “cheap,” when actually the opposite is true: percentage-wise people are paying more for teachers with less money than they have every had? Do you see where “mistrust” can enter the picture when the fallacy of a statement like this is so hard to acknowledge, even for a wonderful journalist like you?


      • Elizabeth, I can’t help but think that you and your friends are choosing the wrong battle though it’s exactly the battle that corporations like to see: pit the middle class against the middle class and let the profits roll in. If teachers are among the best paid in your community, something is wrong with the distribution of wealth… not the teachers. Consider that at this point in time, the Waltons alone make as much as the entirety of the bottom 42% of our population. Then throw in the Gates’, the Koch Brothers… It’s an ugly picture. And, let’s get real–if those lost jobs and incomes in your community are relative to competition, it’s a competition that’s hit steroid level as the top percentages of income earners find legislative inroads to public coffers that were established to serve ALL. I now shudder to think how my tax dollars that are a true sacrifice to this single mother hoping to put her children through college, go to further line the pockets of the corporate elite (By the way, John… I find that 56,000 figure hard to believe. After 19 years of experience, my salary was 52,500). Perhaps, Elizabeth, rather than ranting about the evils of teachers taking SO MUCH money, when so many others have so little, you might look at why so little money is being passed around. You might research the relationship of Rupert Murdoch, the Waltons, the Gates and other corporate giants to the Common Core, and you would do yourself a favor to look at what’s around the corner in the horrors of the TransPacific Partnership. What’s happened to Michigan will look like child’s play.


      • Jan,

        Thanks for your thoughts on this issue. I agree 100 percent with your
        comments about the Waltons. Something is wrong with our entire system, the oligarchic class it has spawned, etc. I will look into the TransPacific Partnership.

        However, I would argue that none of that constitutes a “War on Teachers.” That peels teachers apart from a situation that all–except the one percent– are experiencing. It insults people who work SO hard to earn enough money to pay their taxes AND put food on the table AND pay their rent/mortgage AND pay their health care bill AND save for their retirement AND their kids post secondary school education. My point is this: Our communities and states are delegating a large amount of their citizens’ increasingly meager funds to public education. Public education spending adjusted for inflation in the past few decades has FAR outpaced the median American household income. Americans pay more per capita than all other developed countries ( ).

        So how is this a “War on Teachers?” And who is benefitting from using that term? Remember the “War on Terror” that caused us to invade Iraq? Perhaps this is a similar use of hyperbole –designed for emotional effect, but not addressing the real issue–that not all people make great teachers, even if the union says they do.

        BTW, my sister is a teacher. I get it about teaching being political. Teaching is even more political in private schools (my sister who has worked in both would agree) and the regular workplace. There, you can actually be fired with no due process–the public schools are much less “political” in that regard.


      • Elizabeth,

        I hear what you’re saying. I too largely get annoyed when terrible teachers don’t get fired. At the same time, I’ve seen terrific teachers get harassed due to random reasons that don’t have anything to do with kids. Usually, it’s because some influential parent who knows a board member or two doesn’t like a certain grade their son received. I never thought this would happen, and I used to think it was largely over exaggerated, until I actually saw it happen, more than once. Public school teaching is extremely political, and the educators, whether it’s teachers or administration, are in a very political environment where one idea that is good for kids may be viewed as terrible to another.

        Another thing to think about is that teachers have to lobby for children every day, and sometimes administration doesn’t like it. Part of the reason why it’s so hard to fire teachers is that there is a lengthy due process procedure to protect teachers from administrators who don’t like it when, say, a teacher argues that a student should get more specialized special education services. Teachers can and do get fired, but lots of times administrators would rather focus energy elsewhere. Maybe it should be easier to fire. I don’t know.

        As far as pay, if teachers were doing so well, then there would be loads of people lining up to become teachers. But don’t forget there were vast shortages not too long ago, and it’s predicted there will be shortages in the next few years. So if the perception is that teachers are overpaid, I’d expect more people want to become teachers real soon. Also, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of teachers leave teaching in their first 5 years for all public schools, according to a USC study. In low-income schools, that percentage increases. It’s just a stressful job, and teachers don’t stay, even with their salary and benefits as it is. Teaching is getting more difficult now too. If teachers in your area are paid more than local residents, that seems to me to be an anomaly.


      • Dear Concerned,

        I agree it’s a stressful job.

        Yes, teachers are paid more in our community than the average worker. It is a sought-after career, despite all the hardships.

        Nationally, median earnings for a full-time, year-round worker with a Bachelor’s Degree is $55,864 (US Census, 2010). The average salary for a public school teacher in 2010-11 was $56,069 (National Center for Education Statistics). In our community teachers’ benefits are good, plus of course they get the summers off. Not too hard to see why it is a popular career, especially given our difficult economy.

        My point is that 1) teaching is a relatively average career financially–not terrible by any stretch– and Mr. Merrow needs to acknowledge that even if it doesn’t fit the hyperbolic mantra that we have all gotten so used to 2) the rest of us are struggling too, even more than teachers in fact. We wonder how it is that we are being accused of a “War on Teachers?”

        People like Mr. Merrow need to honor the financial commitment that the public has made to teachers–not mischaracterize it as pathetic and disparage it. Then the ball is in the court of the teaching profession (not the union). The teaching profession should respond to the public’s financial commitment to public education by becoming more selective, so that only the best people are hired and retained. (Finland?)

        I don’t think that wanting the teaching profession to do these things qualifies as a “War on Teachers,” “disingenuous,” “setting teachers and schools up to fail,” etc. and we (including Mr. Merrow) should not buy into that language. It’s a conversation stopper.


    • Elizabeth,

      I too don’t like rhetoric that doesn’t further policy ideas or propose solutions. I once said that I didn’t like the phrase “war on teachers” to a teacher. The teacher asked, “What if it’s true?” That made me pause a little. OK, the word “war” is a bit too far. But, what if, it’s true that there are people who want to destabilize teaching as a profession in order to promote some other agenda. What would need to happen? I keep this thought in the back of my mind as I follow the policy fights happening in America with public education. Sometimes, I take a step back and think to myself that, well, maybe it is happening afterall. Other times, I’m hoping I’m being too paranoid.


  5. Dear John: I am a public school teacher for more than 25 years (I began my
    career as a Catholic educator but left for the simple reason that I could not
    support my family in a job with poor benefits, low salary etc.) Nonetheless, I am very proud that two of our three children have chosen teaching as a career. And the two who picked education were top ranked AP scholars (both are fluent in Spanish).
    > My daughter teaches in a public elementary school in San Diego (dual immersion); my son has
    taught at Charter schools (it was a bad experience; he thinks charter school
    exploit young teachers and fudge their statistics and enrollments to look
    better. He would NEVER WORK in a CHARTER SCHOOL AGAIN.)My son now teaches at the
    Brophy Prep Academy in Phoenix and he is very impressed by the seriousness of the teachers and scholars there. They have a special academy (Loyola) for poorer students to prepare them for Brophy. So I have experience and knowledge of both
    private and public schools. I have also tutored home-schooled students in
    Spanish so I have nothing against parents who desire to home-school. I have
    nothing against the KIPP academy. But Charters per se are not the answer and
    most people distrust them. But in Kern County where I live almost all
    homeschooling is k-8 only; most of these students transfer to public high
    schools. We also have the Bakersfield Christian Academy and Garces, a private
    Catholic academy. Kern county is a conservative county but there is strong
    local support for public schools. A few years ago Prop 38 (vouchers) was voted
    down overwhelmingly in California and lost here too. In short, it is only
    inner-city schools that people shun. What is the answer? I believe we should
    de-certify low-performing schools. What should we replace them with? I think
    the answer is DOD JROTC schools. I know this puts me at odds with many
    conservatives but I believe only a Federally paid teacher faculty could
    stabilize low performing schools in poor districts. Teachers are human beings; they cannot live by altruism alone. And only a stable, highly paid professional faculty could restore schools which have been abandoned to educational mediocrity and chaos. I would never in a million years move to an inner city to teach in an underfunded dysfunctional inner city school. I teach poor and immigrant students but am blessed to live in a stable and well-funded high school district that provides many opportunities for teachers to work and transfer. I really believe we can
    learn a lot from Japan and Finland. They work much harder to provide top highly paid teachers for poorer students. Finland, of course, eschews the Scantron God. I strongly believe multiple choice tests are academic junkfood. They should be used sparingly. And the best and most rigorous tests (AP tests) are never more than 50% multiple choice.
    > And of course the biggest disconnect is by Republican policy makers.
    Voucherism is a losing proposition for Republicans. They seem suicidal in that respect. But then most are motivated not by a desire to reform or improve education but in a spirit of revenge against the CTA or NEA.

    But if you are a Democrat
    you will think that is wonderful. But many Democratic leaders are hypocrites. They wouldn’t be seen dead enrolled their own children in public schools.

    But I don’t care about political parties; all
    I ever have cared about are the kids. Like many teachers, I volunteer much of my time and expertise to the community after hours and on Saturdays. We have made great strides in teaching immigrant students at my school and this has raised our API and our graduation rate.
    > Sincerely,
    > Richard K. Munro


  6. I can see why people trust charter schools. I once did too. First, the word “charter” just sounds so much better than “traditional public school” But more seriously, it’s easy to support charters since they’re an alternative to a traditional system. I think most people would lean towards believing an alternative is better.

    But as I learn more about charters, I’m seriously concerned. I hope education reformers are concerned too. It looks like every other day another crazy charter story comes out, like this one:

    or this related one:

    I used to think that people who criticized charters were “defenders of the status quo” But maybe those who criticize charters are criticizing bad policies? I hope more reporters look into the charter industry. I’m sure not all charters do what Harlem Success does, but Harlem Success is a high profile charter system in NYC that undergoes a ton of scrutiny, so it surprises me that they’d do things like this. And what scares me is if such a high profile chain does things like that, then what are all the low-profile charter schools doing?


  7. This is exactly the point I am making about Charters; some are better than nothing, of course. But many manipulate their scores by 1) excluding or transferring students and 2) “Promoting” students so they don’t have to be tested. If you have an English Learner (EL) student from, let’s say Egypt, you have the choice how many credits you want to transfer. So the administrator can make the student a freshman (if it will make the school look brilliant with EL students who “over achieve” -they may have studied English for years). If the student is a poor English student one can bump him to become a “Senior” knowing he won’t graduate so you can pawn him off to the Adult School so his low scores won’t count against you. This sort of manipulation goes on all the time in traditional public schools but the word is this is especially true in many Charters. By being self-selecting and by manipulating results Charters look better than they really are. But even with all this most charters (upon the whole) are no better and some perform worse than public schools. Sending my own children to a Charter school would be a last resort; I would rather move to a better neighborhood.


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