Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be … teachers

The news was mostly positive from the 54th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Faith in local public schools reached its highest level in nearly 50 years. Most respondents said they trust teachers, even when it comes to controversial topics.

But one result was disturbing. Only 37% of people in the national survey said they would want their child to become a public school teacher in their community. That’s the lowest level in the poll’s history. It’s down from 46% in 2018, the last time the question was asked. In 1969, three-quarters of respondents said they would like their children to become teachers.

It’s hard to square the result with the continued strong support for schools and teachers. If we think schools are doing a good job and educators are trustworthy, why wouldn’t we want our kids to grow up to be teachers?

One possible answer is that the public has become increasingly aware that teaching is a hard and sometimes thankless job. There have been lots of news stories this year about teacher shortages, many of them tying the issue to low pay and a lack of respect for the profession.

Poll respondents who didn’t want their children to be teachers cited those concerns: poor pay and benefits, the demands and stress of the job and a sense that teachers aren’t properly valued. Media coverage of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how hard the job could be, especially when schools veered between online and in-person classes.

On one level, maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s a sign that the public will support better funding for public schools, competitive salaries and benefits for teachers, smaller class sizes, etc.

But one reason people support their local schools and teachers is that they are so familiar. We can get to know our children’s and grandchildren’s teachers, at least when they’re in elementary schools. We may see those teachers at the store, at church, at a ball game. It’s easy to picture them as our neighbors, our friends, even our own grown children.

That’s a reason for one of the most consistent findings, over the years, of the PDK poll: People give much higher marks to their local public schools than to the nation’s public schools. In this year’s poll, 54% gave a grade of A or B to their local public schools, the highest figure since 1974. Only 23% gave an A or B to the nation’s public schools.

If local public schools lose some of that familiarity – if it becomes harder to picture our friends and loved ones as teachers – will schools eventually lose support? It’s a worrisome prospect.

The poll was conducted in June 2022, after a year in which public schools were under systematic attack for what they teach about race, sex, gender, U.S. history and other topics. But poll respondents, especially public school parents, were generally confident that teachers would teach properly about history, civics and racial and ethnic diversity.

The poll found less of a political divide over public schools than one might expect, given the partisanship in national education discourse. For example, 73% of Democrats expressed general confidence in their community public schools, but so did 60% of Republicans. Some 52% of liberals trust teachers to teach about the history of racism in America, but so do 39% of Republicans.

The survey was conducted within a month after the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two adults, and it found bipartisan support for school security measures. Republicans were more gung-ho about security, but 70% or more of Democrats supported having armed police and metal detectors in schools.

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