Valuing Teachers

How do we–the collective we–feel about teachers? The granddaddy of all surveys about public education is The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. It established the brand in 1984 and has, to this observer anyway, become better,deeper and more nuanced over time. {{1}}

There are other education surveys, of course.{{2}} The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic produce an important survey of 40,000 US teachers they call “Primary Sources.”

And every year Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa survey registered US voters on their attitudes toward public education.

Surveys can be misleading or wrong; much depends on the quality of the process, the reliability of the sample and the way the questions are phrased, but, that said, it’s worth surveying the surveys, especially now that there’s a new kid in town, an international (21 countries) survey of public attitudes toward teachers and teaching [.pdf].

The Varkey GEMS{{3}} Foundation reports that it surveyed 1000 representative adults in each of 21 countries{{4}} including the United States. A major conclusion drawn by the Foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom, is that teaching is not held in high enough esteem. “Unless teaching is valued culturally, then the incentive of better pay will not be enough,” the introduction notes, adding: “There are many fictional representations of heroic doctors saving lives on television — from Grey’s Anatomy to ER and House — but hardly any equivalent stories of teachers turning lives around. Every year International Nurses’ Day is celebrated in the UK with a service in Westminster Abbey. President Reagan introduced National Nurses’ Day in the US, which is an opportunity for the media to highlight the achievements of nurses. However, the equivalent in education, World Teachers’ Day, is mostly ignored. We need to think harder, push further, and dream bigger, if we are to find ways of truly celebrating the ‘noble’ profession.”

But the finding that jumps off the page is the overwhelming support for pay-for-performance.

If you don’t have time to go through the document, I offer this review of the highlights regarding teacher status, pay and respect; the role of unions; and that always-interesting question, “Would you want your child to become a teacher?”

STATUS: Teaching ranked 7th of 14 professions across the 21 nations, highest in China, where teachers are most often likened to doctors, and lowest in Israel. In the US, teachers are seen as culturally similar to librarians. These findings struck Andreas Schleicher, the guiding light behind PISA, as questionable because, as he notes in his lukewarm introduction to the survey, Finland ranked 13th {{5}} in public status, while Greece ranked 2nd despite its poor academic performance on PISA. In fact, public status was often inversely correlated with academic performance. Go figure. (See Fig. 11 [.pdf])

TRUST: As the PDK/Gallup survey also reported, teachers are generally trusted. Across the 21 countries, the average “trust” score for teachers was 6.3 out of 10, and no country scored below 5. Finland and Brazil score highest in this category, while Israel, South Korea, Egypt and Japan are the least trusting of teachers.

PAY: Respondents in most countries think teachers should be paid more, but many adults have no clue about how much they actually earn. Respondents in the US are a great example. They think that teachers make about $36,000 a year but believe they should paid about $40,000. However, the true average salary, the study says, is $46,000. This falls in the category of “If they only knew…..”

PAY-FOR-PERFORMANCE: In a section that is unrelated to the actual survey, the Varkey GEMS report links PISA scores and teacher pay, and reports that there is little or no correlation between the two. In other words, right now most teachers are not paid according to their students’ performance. That sets up what follows.

The report poses a question: “Should teachers be rewarded in pay according to their pupils’ results?” That elicited an overwhelmingly positive answer in every country. The US was one of eight countries where 80% of respondents said “Yes.{{6}} That’s higher than I’ve seen in other surveys, but, if the question was actually phrased that way without any discussion of the complexities of the issue, how else could it have turned out?

Scroll down to the bottom, and you can read the actual questions. Here’s how the “Pay for Performance” approval numbers were produced, not by a direct question but by this list.

Q11 To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of
the following statements?
A. Being an effective teacher requires rigorous training
B. It is too easy to become a teacher
C. The quality of teachers is too variable
D. Pupils respect teachers
E. The teachers in my children’s school are respected
by their pupils
F. Teachers work hard
G. Teachers should be rewarded in pay according to
their pupils’ results
H. Teachers should be rewarded in pay for the effort
they put into their job

Unfortunately the survey does not report how the public feels about pay for effort, or whether people believe that teachers work hard. And wouldn’t you like to know if most people feel it’s too easy to become a teacher?

UNIONS: Do unions have too much influence? The results are mixed, but the interpretation is fascinating. Here’s the relevant passage: “Interestingly, some of the countries with the most recent history of teacher union unrest and direct action, such as Japan, Greece, France and the US, have the highest proportions of people who think teacher unions have too much influence. In contrast, the Czech Republic, China, Egypt and Turkey have the lowest number of people who suggest that teachers unions have too much influence. It is also these countries where teacher unions have played a less important political role.”

They seem to be telling us “The less people know about teacher unions, the more they like them.” And its converse: ”The more they know about unions, the less they like them.” I wonder whether that passage reveals more about the survey’s funders and designers than about the survey results.

To me, the money questions are the personal ones, such as “Would you want your child to be a public school teacher?” According to the survey, only ⅓ of US respondents would ‘probably encourage’ or ‘definitely encourage’ their child to become a teacher. Still, that’s higher than in 14 other countries. At the bottom are Israel, Portugal and Japan, but supposedly only 20% of Finnish adults would encourage their child to teach. Parents in China, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt are most likely to give encouragement to children to become teachers.

Surveys like this one are broad-brush at best. As for this particular study, I am reluctant to place much trust in its conclusions, because I suspect the folks in charge began with some biases about teacher pay and the role of unions.

The nitty-gritty requires a fine-tuned instrument. I want to know whether the chef eats in his or her own restaurant. Do teachers and administrators enroll their own children{{7}} in the schools they work in? If the answers are in the negative, then I would choose another restaurant for my family and would want my grandchildren in some other school.

[[1]]1. I learned recently that the parent company, Met Life, is seriously contemplating abandoning the survey. I hope that’s not true because it really has branded Met Life as a serious and socially-concerned company.[[1]]

[[2]]2. When the US government reopens for business, go here. ‎[[2]]

[[3]]3. Varkey GEMS seem to have some skin in the game. From the company website: “GEMS Education is the largest kindergarten to grade 12 private education provider in the world.” and “GEMS Education is an international K-12 education company that owns and operates high performing schools. It also offers consulting services to both the public and private sectors. For over 50 years, GEMS Education has provided high quality education to hundreds of thousands of children around the world.
GEMS has a global network of award winning schools which provide high quality holistic education to more than 142,000 students from 151 countries. It employs over 11,000 education professionals, specialists and staff. GEMS has a world class leadership team that combines business and education expertise from around the globe.
The GEMS Education school model is unique in the world because it offers a broad range of curricula across a range of tuition fees making private education more accessible to the broader community. GEMS Education also supports Governments’ education reform agenda by working with Ministries of Education to lift school performance and improve the standards and expertise in government schools across the globe.”[[3]]

[[4]]4. This was not the normal face-to-face or telephone survey but instead a computer-based process. That process was cheaper and more efficient (only 4 weeks), the survey report explains.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Every other report I have come across says that teachers and teaching in Finland are highly respected.[[5]]

[[6]]6. In Egypt the figure was over 90%, while in Israel, China, Brazil and New Zealand the figure was over 80%. The Czech Republic and Finland hit an even 80%. Portugal and Turkey were in the high 70s.[[6]]

[[7]]7. I just returned from a school where virtually all the teachers with school-age children enroll their children there. Watch for it on the NewsHour soon.[[7]]

4 thoughts on “Valuing Teachers

  1. Good analysis, John, And thanks for the heads-up! Yes, GEMS has a lot of skin in the game –including private schools with Microsoft and Xerox partnerships. And, considering neo-liberal Bill Clinton’s foundation is involved and he is a partner and on the Varkey Gems Foundation advisory board, I think that just confirms that Hillary’s position on privatizing public education is very likely to follow along with Bill’s “New Democrats,” who are just as complicit and entrenched as the Republicans supporting corporate “reform” and privatization


  2. “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure”…….It is true, as you stated, that the way the information is gathered, analyzed, questions phrased, etc. can skew the outcomes of any survey. Just a curiosity, did any of the surveys take into consideration the attitudes of students? From a distance, things look different. Perhaps a survey done of a wide variety of middle and high school students would give an interesting result. They really are quite perceptive people……….Then some of the meta data could be researched.


  3. I believe that the Gates/Scholastic survey has gone down that road before, but it doesn’t do that in the new survey, which is being released today. Here’s part of what a press person sent me: “More than 20,000 public school teachers were surveyed and shared their thoughts on the Common Core State Standards. You’ll find the press release below and full preview at Key findings include:
    – 73% of teachers who teach math, ELA, science and/or social studies in Common Core states agree that they are enthusiastic about the implementation
    – 77% believe the standards will have a positive impact on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills
    – At the same time, 73% believe implementation will be challenging with teachers reporting their top 2 needs as more planning time to find materials and plan lessons and quality professional development
    – With all of this change, teachers still agree that the rewards of teaching outweigh the challenges.”

    This column by Andy Rotherham is worth a look:


  4. It does not suprise me that in the U.S. teachers are seen as culturally similar to librarians. As a teacher and a librarian, I am aware that these professions are considered to be “women’s work” and I believe the attack on teachers (and librarians) is very much an attack on women. The corporate powers expounding at Education Nation want to keep those pesky teachers in line – there will be no voice from the actual practioners!!! Here’s an amazing piece written by sabrina Stevens Shupe on this subject: I also agree that the survey was designed to ensure certain results.


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