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Attitudes

  • As Membership Has Declined, Have Attitudes Toward Unions Changed Too?

    Written on May 26, 2011

    The sharp decline in U.S. union membership over the past 30-40 years is well known, but does it reflect a change in attitudes towards organized labor? In other words, is decreasing union membership accompanied by decreasing support for labor?

    Of course, if attitudes have in fact changed, they might be both exogenous (membership declines because support decreases, leading to fewer unionization drives and less political support) as well as endogenous (support decreases because membership declines, as fewer people are exposed to unions and to the benefits of membership) to unionization levels. And, to some degree, attitudes and membership likely change independent of each other.

    In any case, it’s worth taking a look at how attitudes towards labor have changed over the past few decades. In the graph below, I present simple trend data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered either annually or semi-annually since 1972. Every year, the GSS queries respondents’ confidence in a number of major societal institutions, including organized labor. Granted, there is a difference between having confidence in unions and supporting them per se, but I think it’s safe to assume that the former is a decent indicator of the latter.

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  • What Do Teachers Really Think About Education Reform?

    Written on May 18, 2011

    There has recently been a lot of talk about teachers’ views on education policy. Many teachers have been quite vocal in their opposition to certain policies (also here) and many more have expressed their views democratically – through their unions – especially in states where teachers have collective bargaining rights.

    We should listen carefully to these views, but it’s also important to bear in mind that there are millions of public school teachers out there, with a wide variety of opinions on any particular education policy, and not all of their voices might be getting through.

    So, the question remains: How do most teachers feel about the current wave of education policy reforms spreading throughout states and districts, including (but not at all limited to) merit pay, eliminating tenure and incorporating test-based measures into teacher evaluations?

    The logical mechanism by which we might learn more about teachers’ views on these policies is, of course, a survey. Unfortunately, useful national surveys are quite rare. In order to get accurate estimates, you need an unusually large number of teachers to take the survey (a deliberate "oversample"), and they must be randomly polled (lest there be selection bias). In my last post, I suggested that states/districts conduct their own teacher surveys.  In the meantime, some national evidence is already available, and if the data make one thing clear, it’s that we need more. When it comes to supporting or opposing different policies, teachers’ opinions, like everyone’s, depend a great deal on the details.

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  • Are Americans Really Unwilling To Pay More To Prevent Education Cuts?

    Written on March 14, 2011

    In a speech earlier today, President Obama asserted, “We will not cut education," and implied that doing so would be “reckless” and “irresponsible." The president’s heartening remark, however, comes as  education funding is taking a massive hit at the state and local levels in most states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and, yes, Wisconsin. The damage will likely last for many years.

    In all the debate about what to cut and how deeply, there seems to be an assumption that an increase in revenue for education – to avert these massive cuts - is not an option. Although there are exceptions, very few Democratic governors are supporting tax increases to make up their states’ shortfalls, while Republicans governors are, of course, adamantly opposed.

    Among many members of both parties, the presumption seems to be that raising revenue is simply a non-starter, because the American people are unwilling to pay more.

    I’m not so sure. There is some evidence to suggest that this assumption deserves a second look.

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  • Treating Teachers Like Professionals

    Written on January 18, 2011

    I was very interested to see, in a post by my colleague last month, that elementary school teachers were again voted among the top five most “honest and ethical” occupations in America, by respondents to a November 2010 Gallup Poll

    According to Gallup, 67 percent of respondents rated the honesty/ethics of teachers as “high/very high," 24 percent rated it “average," and 6 percent rated it as “low/very low” (the error margin is +/- 4 percentage points). Only nurses, military officers, and pharmacists ranked higher (with doctors, who ranked 5th, in a statistical tie with teachers).

    I found this interesting because it contradicts a key underlying feature of much of our public education debate. I’ve heard many thousands of teachers speaking out against the market-based reforms that are currently in vogue among opinion leaders, and seen them effectively ignored. I’ve heard everyone from Oprah to big-city superintendents to major television networks tout "Waiting for Superman" — a movie that supposedly focuses on teacher quality as the key to improving education, yet fails to interview even a single teacher. I’ve read hundreds of articles and posts that imply (and sometimes state directly) that teachers who oppose a favored policy do so because they "fear accountability," or that they are more interested in their compensation and job security than in the children they teach. 

    Many teachers call this type of behavior "teacher hating" or a "war on teachers." In my view, however, the fundamental issue here is trust. And the public’s continued faith in teachers does not seem to be shared by many of today’s pundits and policymakers. These same people say frequently that they want to "treat teachers like professionals," but there's a lot more to that than personnel policies.

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  • Do Americans Think We Spend Too Much On Education?

    Written on December 13, 2010

    Cost-cutting is all the rage in education policy. This makes a lot of sense during a recession (the next few years will be brutal), and even during good times we all want money to be well-spent. But much of the discussion on this topic is less about weathering the storm than about a long-term effort to stop the growth of spending on public education. The underlying assumption, hardly unique to education policy, is that people are tired of increasing school costs, and want to start cutting back.

    So, I wanted to take a quick look at what Americans think of education spending, now and over time, using data from the General Social Survey (1972-2008), a nationally representative sample of U.S. opinions and other characteristics (run by the National Opinion Research Center).  The question queries whether respondents believe the U.S. is spending too little, too much, or about the right amount on improving the nation’s education system (note the question’s use of "improving," which likely influences responses to some degree).  Also keep in mind that these are pre-recession data.

    The 2008 data in the table below (non-missing sample size is 993) show that there’s actually a lot of agreement about education spending levels: Almost 3 in 4 Americans (71 percent) believe that we should spend more on improving education, while only about 1 in 20 feels that expenditures are too high.

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  • Extra Time: More From The Magazine's Education Poll

    Written on September 14, 2010

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post.

    A recent education poll conducted by Time Magazine has gotten a lot of attention. Many of the questions are worded so badly that the results are rather meaningless. The question on merit pay, for example, defines the practice as “paying teachers according to their effectiveness” (who would oppose that, if it could be accurately measured?). Other questions are very interesting, such as the one asking whether respondents would pay higher taxes to improve public schools (56 percent would). Or the finding that, when asked what will “improve student achievement the most," more than twice as many people choose “more involved parents” (54 percent) over “more effective teachers” (24 percent).

    But, as is sometimes the case, a few of the survey’s most interesting results were not included in the published article, which highlighted only 11 out of 40-50 or so total questions (the full set of results is available here). Here are three or four unpublished items that caught my eye (the sample size is 1,000, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent):

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  • Do Americans Think Unions Help Everyone?

    Written on August 4, 2010

    The question in the headline is fundamental when trying to understand attitudes towards organized labor, as well as the relatively low union presence in the U.S. The "if I can't have it, nobody can" attitude that anti-labor advocates try to promote among non-members packs far less punch if people understand that many of the conditions they take for granted - trivial things like sick days, minimum wages, and yes, weekends - are in no small part thanks to past and current efforts of the U.S. labor movement. Awareness of these efforts, and of the positive union effect on everyone's wages and benefits, is also, no doubt, partially dependent on one's experience with unions (e.g., coming from a "union family").

    So, it might be instructive to take a quick look at attitudes towards labor's effects in the U.S. compared with those in other nations, and whether this appears to be related to the degree of unionization. Basically - do Americans think unions help all workers, and how do our attitudes stack up against other nations?

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