Teachers, public are closely connected

By: Gene A. Budig and Alan Heaps Guest columnists
February 27, 2017 Updated: February 27, 2017 at 4:05 am
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The nation is painfully polarized on many issues and along many lines (e.g. by political party, geography, education, income, race).

But between and among a select number of groups, not all is negative. One example of a nuanced relationship is between teachers and the general public.

For each of the last 10 years, Education Next - a journal sponsored by Harvard, Stanford, and the Thomas Fordham Institute - has surveyed teachers and the general public to gather and contrast opinions on educational practice and policy.

The 2016 survey tells us that there are areas of agreement and disagreement. (Examples of areas of agreement include the general weak state of our schools and the need for increased government funding. Areas of disagreement include the benefits of teacher tenure, the use of testing, and support for charters and school vouchers.)

We should use teachers and the general public as a case study in symbiotic relationships, how our futures are closely tied together.

Successful public policy requires stakeholders to agree on principles and strategies and, in this case, teachers believe that their voices are not heard. A recent survey by the Center for Educational Policy at the George Washington University, says that "large majorities of teachers believe their voices are not often factored into the decision-making process at the district (76 percent), state (94 percent), or national (94 percent) levels."

Our democracy and economy depend on a strong system of education, and many of our schools are failing. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Education Progress, the "nation's report card," only 25 percent of our high school seniors are ready for college level math and only 37 percent are ready for college level reading.

If we are to turn this around, teachers must help lead the way. Research shows that among school-related factors, teachers are estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other factor including services, facilities, and school leadership.

Unfortunately, the teaching profession and therefore, by extension, the nation, faces enormous challenges.

- We face teacher shortages. More students, increased post-recession reinstated classes, fewer education majors, and high teacher attrition rates have created a national shortfall of 100,000 teachers for 2018.

- We lack teacher diversity. More than 80 percent of our teachers are white, but half our public school students are nonwhite. Studies show that increasing the number of teachers of color plays a role in closing the achievement gap.

- Teacher professionalism is uneven. A combination of teacher knowledge, skills, and practices leads to effective classroom learning but, because of the size and decentralized nature of American education, the planning and applying of these attributes are inconsistent.

The answers to these problems lie, to a great degree, in creating strong relationships between teachers and the pubic, a partnership based on communication, open mindedness, cooperation and respect. Of equal importance, the skills and lessons we develop here can serve as an example of how to bridge the many other gaps that divide the nation.

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Gene A. Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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