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Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them

reviewed by David Reid - August 08, 2014

coverTitle: Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How to Fix Them
Author(s): Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, & Martin R. West
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815725523, Pages: 177, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

How strong is the iron triangle? Almost unbreakable, as long as the public does not have access to information about what is happening in America’s schools. In their book, Teachers Versus the Public: What Americans Think About Schools and How to Fix Them Paul E. Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin R. West make the argument that the three sides of the iron triangle want to keep the general public uninformed about what goes into education and schooling in the United States. The authors describe the three sides of the education iron triangle as (a) Congress, state legislative committees, and school boards, (b) the U.S. Department of Education, State Departments of Education, and school district administrators, and (c) teacher and other employee unions and vendors. The authors stress the point that information can corrode the strength of the iron triangle and because of this threat, the three sides of the iron triangle do not want the American public to be informed or knowledgeable about many education policies.

Teachers Versus the Public uses a longitudinal data set spanning seven years and gives the reader a unique picture of just how little the general public knows about many topical policy issues in education today. While research about the public appearing uniformed or disinterested with educational issues is not new, what the book does add to the conversation is just how much people change their minds when given even a little bit of information. For example, the public greatly underestimates per-student expenditure costs. Using data from 2012 the authors note the average per-student yearly expenditure from the districts they surveyed was about $12,500. The general public guessed, on average, it was $6,600 per student. Without knowing how much money is being spent per-student, 56% of the public says school spending should increase. However, when made aware that the average per-student expenditure is in fact $12,500, only 38% of the public continued to support increased expenditures. The authors find similar patterns regarding public support of teacher salaries, taxes, and other issues that face education today. As the public becomes more aware of the actual information, the gap widens between what they think and what members of the iron triangle think.

While the authors make the point that most people do not want to spend their free time becoming experts on education policy issues and on how schools function, the more interesting idea is that even if the public did wish to become more informed, it would prove extremely difficult. The authors note an “information deficit” and mention information is not only difficult for the public to find, but the timeliness of the release of information is problematic. The authors write, “Just as the education iron triangle benefits from lack of transparency about school expenditures and teacher salaries, so too does it draw strength from the perception that local schools are performing at an acceptable level” (p. 77). By asking strategic and well thought out questions, the authors show just how much the general public’s opinions change about certain policies when given just a small dose of information about schools.

Some will find fault in the book’s use of the often unreliable survey data. Others will argue that the questions the authors ask lead participants to answer questions in a way that is fitting to the authors’ research interests. Writing and survey questions are always of concern with any study of this type; however, the authors answer many of the limitations of their study, such as noting that surveys do not capture how politics really work and acknowledging their questions may have led to certain answers. In each instance the authors provide a convincing rationale, including the point that while individual opinions typically change quite often, collective opinions are much more stable; they prove this with data from 2007-2013.

The authors of Teachers Versus the Public note that the public is more familiar with education outputs, such as graduation rates and test scores, than they are with education inputs, such as school expenditures and teacher salaries. While it is unsurprising that the public would be more concerned about graduation rates and test scores because these things affect them directly, what is surprising is why the public is not more knowledgeable about school inputs. It could be that they simply do not have the time to become experts in these matters, but it also could be that the lack of transparent information does not give them the chance. While information on graduation rates and test scores has become more readily available for the general public, much of the other information about schools is difficult, if not impossible to locate. For example, the authors note Americans assign higher letter grades (A-F) to their local schools than they do to schools around the country. The authors write, “They (the public) may be unwilling to admit that the schools in their own community do not prepare students adequately for college or a career. Or perhaps they lack access to sources of information that would allow them to make an informed judgment on the matter, allowing hope to triumph over reality. The latter possibly deserves to be taken seriously” (p. 77). Teachers Versus the Public reveals just how important information is to changing the education system.

Ultimately the strength of Teachers Versus the Public is the quantity of survey data it amasses to find trends and patterns over seven years of data collection. Anyone with an interest in education policy topics of today should read this book, if only to gain valuable information about how teachers and the public feel about the most important issues facing our education system. Where most books focus on one area of policy, this book delivers information on a wide variety of topics with a unique data set. In this way, Teachers Versus the Public is a great addition to the field of education policy and brings to light that the American public is not simply uninformed about many pressing policy issues, but asks who is keeping them uninformed.

The general public has the chance to “rust the iron triangle” because the public will always be involved in public schooling. The only way change is guaranteed to happen in this arena is to make more information available to the public, including both educational inputs and outputs, so the public can make informed decisions about the education system, and ultimately put pressure on the iron triangle to change in a way that improves education in America. Access to information needs to be immediate and easy to understand. If then still there is no interest from the general public, we can conclude perhaps they are disinterested. Until then we cannot assume that the public does not want to be involved to a greater extent in these important policy issues.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17638, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 12:21:46 AM

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