Poll: 2 in 3 say public school teachers underpaid

Most Americans say public-school teachers are underpaid and say they would support them if they went on strike for better wages, a new poll shows, offering backup for newly assertive educators.

At the same time, the poll found American confidence in teachers at a low point. Also, the share of Americans who would want one of their children to become a teacher has fallen sharply, partly due to low pay, the poll found.

The PDK Poll, which annually measures American attitudes toward education issues, was conducted in May, following high-profile strikes by teachers in states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

The findings reflect fundamental contradictions in American attitudes toward education, said Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK International, which sponsored the poll.

“On one hand, it’s the cornerstone of democracy that’s going to help all kids. On the other hand, we’re going to underfund it year after year,” he said. “We talk out of both sides of our mouth all the time about public education, and I think our results reflect that.”

Public schools are already struggling with a teacher shortage, and fewer students are in teacher preparation programs. These poll results suggest that problem could persist.

Teaching “appears to be becoming less attractive as a profession,” Starr said.

In the meantime, teachers appear to have backup in their fight to raise wages.

Total union membership has fallen nationally, but the survey found strong support for teacher strikes: 73 percent of respondents said they would support public-school teachers in their community if they went on strike for higher pay. Support was even higher among parents of public-school students who would be most affected, at 78 percent.

The survey also found two-thirds of people say teacher salaries are too low. That general impression was affirmed when people were asked about $39,000 as a starting salary — the national average; 65 percent said that was too low.

Conversely, just 6 percent of all adults said teacher salaries are too high.

The survey also found that fewer than half of Americans — 46 percent — would like their child to become a teacher in public schools. That’s down from 70 percent in 2009 and a high of 75 percent in the first PDK poll in 1969.

In an open-ended question, respondents offered a range of reasons for why they would not want a child to become a teacher, but the most popular response was poor pay and benefits, followed by student behavior. Other responses touched on large class sizes, the thanklessness of the job, too much bureaucracy and a large amount of work.

The survey also found:

 

    •  Most Americans — about six in 10 — say they have trust and confidence in public-school teachers. But the 39 percent who said they do not have confidence was the highest level since this question was first asked in 2010.

 

    •  Most want to improve the existing education system rather than start over. A record 78 percent of people said they would choose “reforming the public school system” over “finding an alternative to the existing system.”

 

    • Almost all parents — 92 percent — said current school start and end times work very or somewhat well for their families. Still, there is interest in starting school later. Two-thirds of parents of high school students said school starts between 7 and 7:45 a.m., but the sane ratio of parents would prefer a start time of 8 a.m. or later.

 

The PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools was conducted online May 1-21 of 1,042 adults, including 515 parents of children in grades K-12. The margin of sampling error is 3.9 percentage points for the full sample.

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