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Poll: Americans say teachers are underpaid, about half of Republicans oppose book bans

LA Johnson
/
NPR

We've all seen the headlines – about book bans, school board shoutfests and new laws to limit how teachers can talk about gender identity or racism. America is deeply divided, and those fissures are ripping through classrooms – with teachers trapped straddling the chasms.

But are parents, teachers and the public feeling as divided as the headlines make it seem?

A pair of new, nationally-representative NPR/Ipsos polls reveals division, to be sure: A majority of Republican parents worry broadly about what children are being taught, compared to a minority of Democratic parents. There's also division within the Republican Party around how to address that worry and whether banning books or restricting teachers is appropriate.

But there's a surprising consensus among the general public too: a sweeping respect for teachers and broad agreement that they're overworked and should be better paid.

One poll, of the general public, included 1,316 respondents with an oversampling of K-12 parents (452); the other surveyed 510 K-12 teachers. We sorted through the results and smooshed them thematically into a handful of the most interesting takeaways.

Before we start, a reminder: Polling is a butter knife not a scalpel, and the margins of error here are worth keeping in mind: +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level for all general public respondents, +/- 4.8 percentage points for K-12 parents, and +/- 5.0 for K-12 teachers. Now then:

1. Parents, teachers and the general public agree: Educators are overworked and underpaid

Just 19% of teachers surveyed believe they are paid fairly, and 93% say they're asked to do too much for the pay they receive.

"We need to help support teachers as much as we can so that the good ones aren't burning out and, you know, finding waitressing jobs because they can either get more money or they just don't want to deal with it," says Sylvia Gonzales, a longtime teacher in the Dallas area.

The surprise here isn't that teachers think they're underpaid; it's that much of the public agrees.

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Just 22% of the general public believe teachers are paid fairly, and three-quarters (75%) say teachers are "asked to do too much work for the pay they receive."

"Even if they're getting paid a million dollars, they're not getting paid what they're worth," says Mike Kerr, a registered Republican and father of two children attending public schools near Fort Collins, Colo. "I can't even tell you, like, I hold teachers in such high regard. Every single one of my kids' teachers, from kindergarten now through seventh grade, I have absolutely adored."

With nearly half of public schools having at least one teacher vacancy at the beginning of this school year, the fact that three-quarters of survey respondents now agree teachers are overworked and nearly 7 in 10 say they are underpaid doesn't bode well for local and regional teacher shortages.

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Like Kerr, most parents and the general public – 90% – also say they believe "teaching is a worthwhile profession that deserves respect."

Little surprise, though, that two-thirds (66%) of parents admit they would be "concerned" about their child's financial future if they wanted to become a teacher.

2. Americans say they trust teachers to make classroom decisions, but it's complicated

With all the stories these days, about parents and activists challenging teachers over a host of classroom issues, you might think trust in teachers is low.

But you'd be wrong. Three-quarters of parents – and the general public – agree "teachers are professionals who should be trusted to make decisions about classroom curriculum."

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This question of trust is complicated though.

When asked who should be primarily responsible for decisions about what is taught in public schools, respondents splintered dramatically, with the public and parents broadly aligned.

Thirty percent say teachers should be primarily responsible, while about 27% side with parents and about 26% side with school boards. What should we make of this wild variation?

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"In the abstract, people trust teachers," says Mallory Newall, a vice president at Ipsos, but Republicans and Republican parents "are showing some signs of concern."

For example, just 15% of Republicans overall say teachers should be primarily responsible for what's taught in schools; 48% say that power should fall to parents. For Democrats, the dynamic flips: 46% say teachers should be primarily responsible while just 9% think parents should.

When we asked teachers who they think should be primarily responsible for decisions about what is taught, perhaps unsurprisingly, 60% side with their fellow teachers, while just 15% defer to school boards and even fewer, 10%, side with parents.

3. Republicans appear divided over political intervention in education

Republican officials in many states, including Florida, Iowa, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Georgia, have waged pitched battles over what can and cannot be discussed in the classroom.

In Florida, for example, lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis have led a handful of controversial incursions into state education policy, threatening teachers who cross new legal lines in conversations about race, racism and gender identity with students.

To be clear, many parents do feel anxious about what's going on in classrooms. Sixty-five percent of Republican parents and 46% of Independent parents say they're worried about what their child is being taught or will be taught. Just 30% of Democrats who are parents share that concern.

But this new NPR/Ipsos poll of parents and the public suggests Republicans are divided over efforts to put that worry into action by controlling what happens inside classrooms.

When it comes to state lawmakers "creating policies to restrict what subjects teachers and students can discuss," 38% of Republicans are onboard, while 49% are opposed. At the same time, nearly half (48%) of Republicans approve of school boards limiting what subjects teachers and students can discuss, while 39% are opposed.

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Odunayo Ajayi, a parent in Maryland, supports efforts to prevent teachers from discussing gender identity with students. He worries giving kids too much access to information, too much educational liberty, can overwhelm them. For example, if young people are told that gender is fluid, that "you can be whatever you want to be," Ajayi says, "that is too much liberty."

But it's clear in the poll data and interviews that some Republican respondents feel differently.

"We're really tying [teachers'] hands," says Amanda Hickerson, a Republican parent in southeast Virginia. "I wouldn't go to my mechanic and tell him how to fix my car... So why are we doing this to our teachers? It just doesn't make any sense to me."

In our NPR/Ipsos survey of teachers, educators say they feel the same. Ninety-three percent believe teachers are professionals who should be trusted to make decisions about classroom curriculum. Several veteran teachers tell NPR they feel hamstrung by federal, state and local officials, usually non-educators, telling them what they can and cannot do.

"When I first started teaching, teachers had a great deal more autonomy in their classrooms. I believe that [they] were treated more as professionals, recognized as experts in their field," says Leeann Bennett, who has been teaching for more than two decades and now works in an alternative middle school on the Oregon coast, a job she says she loves.

Bennett says current efforts to limit teachers miss the whole point of teaching:

To help children learn how to think, not what to think.

When I first started teaching, teachers had a great deal more autonomy in their classrooms. I believe that [they] were treated more as professionals, recognized as experts in their field.

"I always let [my students] know, 'I'm not trying to make you think like I do,' " Bennett says. " 'I'm trying to help you figure out what you think.' And when teachers get hamstrung... this is a disservice to our democracy and it's certainly a disservice to growing minds."

Scott Lone, a veteran teacher outside Milwaukee, takes particular issue with efforts in other states to prevent teachers from discussing sexuality and gender identity with their students.

Lone is openly gay but didn't come out until he was 39.

"I know the loneliness and despair that many of our students who are part of the LGBT community experience on a daily basis," Lone says. "All it takes is one teacher... to be a beacon of hope for that child, and that child will flourish. And if we can't be that beacon of hope, then we have done a disservice to the teaching profession. We have done a disservice to humanity. And we really ought to be ashamed of ourselves."

4. Democrats, Independents and Republicans oppose book bans

When it comes to state lawmakers removing certain books from schools, such bans have the support of just 5% of Democrats, 16% of Independents and 35% of Republicans. Fifty-two percent of Republicans oppose such efforts.

"Anything that depicts pornography should be removed. That's not part of a public school," says Heather Randell, who homeschools her 13-year-old son in the Dallas area. Randell identifies as a conservative-leaning Christian, and says "anything that is displaying actual sex acts, outside of a National Geographic special on reproduction, should not be in a library."

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But Randell disagrees with broader efforts to ban books based on their treatment of race.

"There's a lot of books that I think that are politically charged or race charged," Randell says. "Those do not offend me at all because that opens up a kid's mind one way or the other. I'm OK with opening up their minds. Just don't do sex."

While Republicans are more likely to support local school boards doing the banning – 41% versus just 7% of Democrats and 21% of Independents – 46% of Republicans still oppose such efforts.

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Kerr, the Colorado Republican, says, "as a child growing up, a lot of the books that I read, maybe I didn't enjoy them, but I was forced to read them. But they opened my eyes to the world."

Native Son by Richard Wright, for example, "a book that's probably no longer allowed in schools, but it really opened my eyes, coming from where I grew up in a farming community to a city with other races and other cultures," Kerr says.

On the subject of gender identity, several Republican respondents tell NPR they worry that efforts to limit what teachers can say – as one new Florida policy does – sends the wrong message to children.

"It's just playing into teaching kids that, you know, somebody is different. Let's get rid of them," says Stephanie, a mother of four children in the Chicago area and a registered Republican. "I just think the better thing to do would be to teach kids about different people and how to accept everyone."

Stephanie asked that we not use her last name because many in her community disagree with her views, and she worries her comments could hurt her family.

5. Public perception of teachers has gotten worse

Half the general public in our NPR/Ipsos poll say the public's perceptions of teachers have gotten worse in the last 10 years. But it's hard to know what to make of that. Keep in mind, these are the same respondents who say, overwhelmingly, that teachers deserve respect and aren't paid fairly.

So support for teachers among individual respondents is strong – quite strong – even as many believe the broader public's perception of them has gotten worse.

Teachers themselves tell a similar story. Seventy-three percent say the public's perception of them has gotten worse over the last decade, and 66% say their working conditions have worsened.

As something of a surprise, teachers are slightly more likely than the general public (46% vs. 41%) to say the quality of public education in their area has also gotten worse in the last 10 years.

What explains all this?

Newall, at Ipsos, has one theory: The bitterness of the classroom culture wars – led by an outspoken minority of politicians, parents and activists, who, our poll suggests, may not speak for a majority of Republicans, let alone a majority of Americans – may be poisoning the well.

"It's really this focus, I think, on some of the most extreme voices that has made teachers feel persecuted or feel like their job has gotten harder," Newall says, "and that's not how the vast majority of the American public feels."

According to a recent review of 1,000-plus requests to remove books from schools during the 2021-'22 school year, The Washington Post found the majority were filed by 11 people.

6. Most teachers don't regret teaching

Ending on a slightly more hopeful note, 80% of teachers surveyed say they're happy they became teachers – despite widespread agreement that they're underpaid.

How do you reconcile that happiness with so much bad news?

Well, 95% of teachers surveyed say they became teachers because they wanted "to do good."

"For many, teaching is a passion. That was clear in our polling five years ago," Newall says, referring to an NPR/Ipsos teacher poll from 2018. "They know it's a hard job and they feel that the public's views of their job have only gotten worse over time. And yet they still love the job and would choose to do it again. And that's passion."

Oregon teacher Leeann Bennett says she's left teaching, several times, but keeps coming back.

"I come home every single day just emotionally wiped out because I am on point for seven and a half hours with kids, and I don't get a break," Bennett says, but it's also deeply fulfilling.

"My job is fantastic," Bennett says. "I love [it.]"

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and data graphics by: LA Johnson and Alyson Hurt
Reporting contributed by: Janet W. Lee

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.