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Teachers Have Plenty to Say About School Discipline and Climate. Who’s Listening?

New polls gauge public support, awareness of education issues.

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For education journalists, talking with teachers isn’t optional. It’s an essential element of the job, and a key component of many stories we report.

But the voices we find for stories often rely on the luck of the draw — the teachers who show up at school board meetings to protest a policy change, the ones we encounter pulling lunch duty on the day we’re touring the cafeteria, the most prodigious tweeters — and those who seek out journalists to share important information.

In the wake of the recent “Red for Ed” wave of teacher strikes and walkouts across the country, teacher voices have arguably never been louder. And at least one presidential candidate has vowed to make them even stronger. If elected, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts vowed to nominate a teacher to be the nation’s education secretary.

Opportunities to hear from a large cross-section of the teaching population are rare. That’s what makes two new national polls of particular value. Do teachers feel valued as professionals? What are their thoughts on changing approaches to school discipline? What is the primary responsibility of a public school to its students? How likely are teachers to quit their jobs, and what would be the driving motivator for leaving? The new polls offer answers to these and other questions.

It’s important to remember that polls are a snapshot, not a litmus test. People who participate are often asked to render judgment on complex topics with little or no background information.

It’s also essential to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to poll findings. Who paid for the poll? Are the respondents a nationally representative sample of the target population? And above all, do the questions seem impartial or skewed to produce a particular outcome? (If you’re not sure, ask an independent expert to review them.) Always ask to see the exact wording of all questions and the detailed response data (broken down by subgroups). For example, if an advocacy group releases a summary of the poll results, be sure its depiction aligns with what the data show.

Mixed Views on School Discipline

One new education poll was sponsored by the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and conducted by Fordham in partnership with the RAND Corp. The survey asked 1,200 teachers in grades 3-12 nationally about school discipline policy and practices. Both Education Week and The 74 have solid overviews, and the Fordham report is worth a close read on its own.

The report is particularly timely as public schools wrangle with the implications of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ rollback of Obama administration guidance on school discipline. That guidance was intended to reduce significant racial disparities in how often, and how severely, students are punished. It’s become a hugely divisive issue for educators, parents, and policymakers.

Pay careful attention to poll’s findings on the murky quality of school discipline data. Among the key findings: Teachers describe widespread classroom disruptions because of student misbehavior, particularly in under-resourced schools serving large numbers of children from low-income families. Teachers were also conflicted about the best way to discipline students, with black teachers significantly more likely than their white peers to see suspension and expulsion patterns as racially biased.

The goal of the Fordham survey was to get a deeper understanding of school discipline from the viewpoint of the actual practitioners, co-author and senior Fordham research associate David Griffith told The 74’s Kevin Mahnken. (The value of that was echoed in a statement by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.)

Nationally, 43% of teachers said they believed underreporting was a factor in declining suspension numbers in their schools. The number was even higher — 57% — in New York City, the nation’s largest school district. But that figure came from a relatively small subset of 150 teachers who participated in the Fordham poll. Still, it’s a data point worth exploring, as Chalkbeat’s Alex Zimmerman does here.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s main federal law for K-12 education, states must keep track of suspensions and expulsions. But there’s no requirement for how that data is used to evaluate school performance. Fordham’s researchers urge states not to brand schools with higher discipline numbers as “bad,” as it incentivizes teachers and administrators to game the system, rather than enforce policies that might keep kids safe. (This is exactly what played out when states were allowed to set their own definitions of “persistently dangerous schools” under the No Child Left Behind, and thus very few ever met that threshold.)

Teachers Speak Up

The second new survey of teachers is a fresh angle on the longstanding, annual PDK Poll, published by Phi Delta Kappan International, a professional association for educators. PDK’s pollsters spoke with a representative sampling of nearly 2,400 U.S. adults, including 1,083 parents of K-12 students and 553 teachers. It’s long been a goal to add teachers to the annual poll, now in its 51st year, said Joshua Starr, PDK’s chief executive officer and the former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Public discourse about what schools need too often excludes rank-and-file classroom teachers, Starr said.

“We wanted to try raising and elevating their [teachers’] voices, using it as a way to help people understand the complexity of the work in public education, and ultimately change the narrative around what public schools can and cannot do, and what we need to do to make it that much better,” Starr said.

There are plenty of story ideas in the PDK poll, including uniformly strong support for civics education, and the belief among the majority of teachers that their primary obligation is to produce good citizens. (Among parents, the top goal was academic preparation). It’s worth looking at other areas of the poll where teachers and parents voiced competing priorities. Just 6% of teachers said they believe student performance should be measured by test scores compared with 23% of parents. At the same, it’s important to take note of where teachers and parents are on the same page. The poll finds that 70% of parents saw mediation and counseling as effective for school discipline as suspensions compared with 73% of teachers.

For mediation to really take hold as the de facto approach to school discipline, there’s a lot of work still to be done, said Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, and a 19-year veteran of the Richmond (Virginia) Public Schools. Robinson, who teaches history and social studies to incarcerated youth in grades 6-12 at the Virgie Binford Education Center, located inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center, advocates for ending out-of-school suspensions and expanding social-emotional learning programs to curtail the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects black and brown students.

Without adequate resources and buy-in at every level — from parents to teachers, administrators and policymakers — efforts to overhaul school discipline systems are being set up to fail, he said.

“Teachers are really passionate about advocating for their students,” Robinson told me. “For years we’ve been crying out for what we need, and hopefully people are going to start listening.”

The PDK poll results signal that many teachers feel undervalued — half of those polled said they had considered quitting in the past year, 55 percent wouldn’t want their own child to follow their path into the profession,and 60 percent felt their pay was unfair. There was strong support among poll respondents for teachers striking for better pay, with 74% of parents and 71% of all adults saying they would back this strategy. Interestingly, the support was even stronger among poll respondents for teachers to strike “for a greater voice in academic policies” — 83% of parents and 79% percent of all adults said they support this.

Among teachers, striking to boost education funding overall had the strongest support at 58%, compared with 55% for higher pay and 52% for more say over “academic policies, testing, and curriculum.”

The two new polls may be most useful to reporters not as static data points for a one-off story but as conversation starters. How do local educators feel about the results? Where are their experiences and perspectives similar and where do they diverge? From there, nuanced stories, rich with teacher voices, will follow.