Poll shows changing teaching force more receptive to education reform ideas

Liz Goodwin

An increased share of the American teaching force supports paying teachers based on their performance, evaluating teachers on how their students score on tests and other tenets of the education reform movement that teachers' unions have historically and often fiercely opposed, according to a new poll by the National Center for Education Information.

Fifty-nine percent of all teachers polled said they are in favor of paying teachers based on their performance (also called "merit pay"), up from only 42 percent in 2005. Nearly a third of teachers (up from 27 percent) said ending teacher tenure would improve education, while 19 percent (up from 13) said they would support ending teachers' unions altogether. The figures represent a small fraction of the total teaching force, but are notable for how much they've grown in only four years.

Some of this shift in opinion is echoed by the country's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, which, to the surprise of many this May, tentatively backed the creation of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

But Emily Feistritzer, the author of the study, tells The Lookout that much of the change appears to be driven by the growing number of teachers who are entering schools through non-traditional routes. These teachers didn't major in education in college or go to an education graduate school program; instead they joined teaching through alternate certification routes for mid-career professionals or programs like Teach for America.

About a third of new teachers hired since 2005 came through these non-traditional routes, and those teachers tend to support different education policies than their peers. Unlike teachers whose entire careers have been within the education system, 59 percent of these non-traditional teachers say evaluating teachers by student test scores is a good idea. Those who entered teaching through alternate paths also support paying more money to teachers in "high needs" schools and those who teach high-demand subjects.

Feistritzer, who advocates for alternative routes to teaching, reasons that this new generation of teachers will do more to transform the profession for the better than federal reform programs like Race to the Top.

"Teaching historically hasn't changed very much in the last half century," Feistritzer says. "But I think [...] this whole new population of non-traditional people that are coming into the teaching force are going to wind up having a profound impact on the profession. I've been around a long long time and I've not really felt that the teaching force stands a better chance of changing than I do now by virtue of the people coming into the profession."

Education historian and former Department of Education official Diane Ravitch, on the other hand, has argued that Teach for America encourages a "revolving" teaching force instead of a stable one and also only makes up a tiny fraction of the country's 4 million teachers. Nearly 85 percent of all teachers in the nation's schools still entered through traditional routes, even though the share of non-traditional new teachers is growing.

Feistritzer praised professionals who switch to teaching mid-career as bringing more real-world experience with them into the classroom.

Since 2005, the teaching force has become increasingly female and younger, the study also found. Twenty-two percent of teachers are now under 30, compared to 11 percent four years ago, and 84 percent are female.

The study surveyed 1,076 teachers and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.