Teacher Surveys and Public Opinion

surveysThe debate over SB 191 — better known as the bill that revamped teacher evaluations — was a watershed moment in Colorado, and one of the most bitterly debated education issues of the decade.  Proponents of the bill took out full-page advertisements in the Denver Post, opponents held rallies at the state capital. Both sides engaged in pitched PR battles, enlisting numerous other groups.

The bitterness has lingered, and considerable animosity remains — particularly from opponents (which is logical; prevailing views have far less to shout about). Groups that lobbied hard against SB 191 remain ardent critics as it moves towards implementation. Whatever one’s position on SB 191 (and I am sort of in the middle), it’s impossible to believe that the sustained volume and venom of pubic rhetoric had no impact, particularly on teachers.

Sure enough, in a just released biannual poll of Colorado teachers, one of the major findings is cited thus:

In this year’s survey, the percentage of teachers who felt evaluations are fair dropped from 84.1 percent to 79.8 percent.

That’s a decent size drop.  Is it meaningful?

What’s remarkable here is that SB 191 has been implemented in only a very few pilot districts around the state; in the overwhelming majority of districts there has been no change in the way teachers are evaluated.  That’s right — the controversy around teacher evaluations and the repeated claims that it would be unfair to teachers made the current evaluation system feel less fair to teachers. Particularly with opinion surveys, it’s exceptionally hard to filter out the political context. And oddly enough, even an 80% approval of evaluations would be considered on the high end of most sectors.

And there is an important lesson here.  Advocacy groups on the losing end of a political battle can’t claim things are getting better or that people are generally happy.  One is forced to see every glass as empty. As Andrew Rotherdam writes at length about another teacher satisfaction poll from earlier this year:

Surveys like the Metlife one are Rorschach tests for advocates, who see and seize on whatever nugget might bolster their agendas. That’s Advocacy 101, and [union leaders] Van Roekel and Weingarten aren’t analysts or public intellectuals — they’re lobbyists. But the poor-mouthing of good news about teachers is more than a tactic; it’s a symptom of education’s counterproductive grievance culture.

Instead of highlighting positive trends in teaching, union leaders and various advocates would rather stoke resentment. We’ve all heard the litany: “Low pay! Too much testing! No respect!” There is some truth to all of that, but it’s only part of the story. An enviable level of job satisfaction is another. We hear about a “war on teachers” but, ironically, their self-avowed champions talk the job down as much as any critic.

There is an odd disparity here: the people who most often cite themselves as supporters of teachers are, in many ways, hardest on the profession.  They repeatedly cite non-school factors (poverty, health, parents) as being so dominant that even the best teachers cannot overcome their adverse impacts, while the groups cited as anti-teacher argue that great teachers can indeed overcome these and other factors. The fight for public opinion makes strange bedfellows indeed.

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