The quality of teachers, how they are paid and school funding are key issues facing public schools nationwide, according to a recent survey.
The 42nd Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll released last week provides an annual report of the public’s attitude toward public schools. Much of the poll centered on performance pay for teachers versus a single salary schedule, which offers incremental yearly increases based on longevity and level of education.
The single salary schedule was originally created to eliminate pay discrimination between male and female teachers as well as elementary and secondary teachers. Performance evaluations based on classroom observations and student achievements are not included in the single salary schedule approach.
Almost three out of four Americans believe quality of work, not a standard scale, should determine teacher pay.
“That’s a big discussion in the country right now,” Helena Public Schools Superintendent Bruce Messinger said.
About six years ago, Messinger said, Helena moved to a career ladder. This is similar to a single salary schedule, but with a few differences that put it somewhere in the middle of the two approaches. To advance, teachers not only must gain additional years of experience, but also must have positive evaluations and complete career development training.
It’s clear from the poll results that Americans understand higher education provides opportunities for higher salaries. Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said it shows that the American public is linking education to economic achievement.
“Within the last month, three major national polls found a direct link between education and economy, so that’s important to make sure that all children who graduate are college and career ready,” Wise said.
The poll also focused on the role the federal government plays in public education. Overwhelmingly, Americans favor keeping a poorly performing school open with existing teachers and principals, while providing comprehensive outside support. And four out of five believe the federal government should not have a role in holding schools accountable, but rather having the local government or school boards set those standards.
“Most (surveyed) don’t want (the federal government) to run it, but it’s important they support it through money, standards and getting an education that permits kids to participate globally,” Wise said. “The poll raises some questions like what happens when the stimulus package goes away.”
It’s hard to discuss schools without talking about funding. Thirty-six percent of Americans polled said school funding tops the list of the biggest problems facing schools in their communities, followed by lack of discipline and overcrowding.
Locally, Helena and East Helena schools balanced their budgets this fiscal school year without decreasing staff or services, but both districts are holding their breath to see what the upcoming legislative session brings in the way of school allocations.
Many Helena schools have room for additional students, but overcrowding is certainly an issue in the north valley elementary schools, where 150 students are bused from their neighborhood schools to other facilities with space.
“We are managing it as well as we can, given the variables,” Messinger said. “We’d like to be in a place where we don’t have to transport as many children on these longer bus rides.”
The poll found that Americans believe the most important national education program should be improving the quality of teaching. It was rated much higher than developing demanding standards, creating better tests, and improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools.
Seventy-eight percent of parents surveyed say they have trust and confidence in public school teachers. Many teachers will tell you, however, they need time to learn as well.
“This is one of the first polls I’ve seen where the public recognizes teachers need more time to learn as we try to master new ways of delivering education,” Wise said.
Messinger says he agrees that teacher training is the single factor that consistently correlates with improvement in the classroom. In Helena, staff has seven contract days for professional development when teachers are not with students, and new educators have two additional days for their first five years.
Polls that collect and analyze opinions of American citizens are important because they provide a snapshot in time, Wise says.
“The Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll comes at a critical juncture for the nation’s public school system as federal, state and local policymakers grapple with how to increase student outcomes while contending with budget shortfalls,” Wise said.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org