The Value Our Teachers Add

by Robert O. Slater - May 10, 2013

High-stakes tests and testing policies are now being reinforced with value-added teacher assessment. But gains in tests scores from one year to the next are not the only value that teachers add. Forty years of data from the National Opinion Research Center suggests that teachers' own values may help stabilize our increasingly unsteady democracy.

Teachers have lately become ground zero for federally-influenced and state-led school reform.  The latest reform targets teacher evaluation, and uses a “value-added” assessment approach.

Value-added teacher assessment links teacher quality to year-to-year improvement in students' high-stakes test scores.  The basic logic behind this approach is that, all things being equal, the greater the gain in student scores from one time to the next, the more effective the teacher.

Now, teachers do add value when they enable students to increase their performance on standardized tests, but this is not the only or even the most important value they add. An examination of 40 years of data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (GSS) (Smith et al., 2011), suggests that an equally if not more important value teachers add comes by way of their own values. Teachers’ values, as it turns out, may help stabilize democracy in America.  

The signs that democracy in the U.S. has grown increasingly unsteady in recent years are abundant but two that are obvious and telling are the growth of inequality and the emergent political gridlock. Inequality in America today is as great as it has been since the progressive income tax was established in the early part of the last century, and political gridlock is becoming a Washington commonplace.

Values themselves may well be a major factor behind the growing unsteadiness of democracy, a development that Max Weber predicted early last century. He argued that as modern democratic societies grow more secular, values become increasingly “rationalized” until there comes a point when they begin to fragment into either/or choices that make compromise difficult if not impossible, compromise being the sine qua non of democracy.  

That democracy has a tendency to go to extremes and become unstable was also a theme of de Tocqueville’s (1969).  He says that “agitation and instability are natural elements in democratic republics.” Democracies, he says, tend to cultivate radical individualism which is “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

Freedom and equality are two core values of any democracy worthy of the name, but in America it appears that freedom has been privileged over equality.  If the guns debate shows us anything it is that of the two values, freedom, especially freedom as individual rights, seems to be the primus inter pares in the U.S.

We should not be skeptical, therefore, if we find that American elementary and secondary school teachers tend to value freedom highly, probably even more highly than other Americans who do not teach for a living. They are, after all, explicitly charged with the task of passing on to the next generation our nation's founding principles and its history, not to mention more general values as well.   Whether we like it or not, teachers teach values not so much by what they teach but how they teach it, and by how they comport themselves.   As a democracy, we can expect that freedom is one of the values they teach.  And if this be so, then we can reasonably expect school teachers themselves to value freedom highly, perhaps even more than other Americans.  

Surprisingly, however, the GSS data indicate that this is not the case. American elementary and secondary teachers do not, as a group, tend to value freedom as highly as other Americans, particularly those with comparable levels of education.   

Elementary and secondary school teachers, are about 11 percentage points less likely than comparably educated Americans to let a communist speak in their community, about 7 percentage points less likely to let an atheist speak and about 5 percentage points less likely to let a homosexual speak. In general, teachers, as a group, are about 13 percentage points less likely than other comparably educated Americans to be highly supportive of the free-speech rights of controversial types. Why? Why is it that American teachers are not as supportive as other Americans of this important aspect of freedom?  

The general hypothesis that arises out of analyses of the data is that school teachers tend to be less supportive than non-teachers of the value of freedom because individual freedom in America is being taken to extremes.  Teachers are reacting to this excess and trying to curb or regulate it.  This shows up in their values.  They are less supportive of the value of freedom because they must deal every day with the reality of its excesses.

Now, in his classic Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie (1975) noted that the occupation of teaching tends to foster teacher conservatism. It is being suggested here that there are broader societal effects as well. Teachers’ values reflect their response to the condition of democratic polity and society as a whole.

Through television, the internet and the entertainment industry, American culture encourages children to test the limits of individual liberty.   The general message it sends is that they are free to do and be pretty much anything they want.  But usually left out of this message is the caveat that while they are free to experiment with self-expression they ought not to do so without considering the consequences for others.   The result, as de Tocqueville predicted, is that many children come to a radical individualist's understanding of freedom: freedom is being able to do whatever one wants without regard to its consequences for others.

Many children tend to carry this narrow understanding of freedom into the nation's classrooms where teachers must deal with it.  But faced with the task of managing not one but many children in a single room, often all day long, and also under increasing pressures to prepare their students to pass high-stakes accountability tests, teachers do not have the leisure to allow their students to experiment with self-expression.  Accordingly, they discourage children from testing the boundaries of freedom and thereby teach them that individual liberty has limits.

In teaching children the limits of individual freedom and self-expression, teachers make an important but largely unacknowledged contribution to democracy in America: They help stabilize its unsteadiness.

Teachers' contribute to the stabilization of democracy not only by regulating children's understanding of freedom.  While they curb excesses of self-expression, they encourage and nurture values that support community, the so-called "social virtues" (Fukuyama, 1995), upon which advanced capitalist democracies tend to have a corrosive effect (Giddens, 2003).  In the case of these values, the data suggest that teachers tend to be more supportive than other Americans.  

This seems to be the case, at least, for the value of trust that, as Robert Putnam (2000) and others have found, has been on the decline in America. In the 1970s, for example, 48 percent of Americans said that people could be trusted.  By 2010, the figure was 35 percent.  In just four decades, trust levels in the U.S. have dropped by 27 percent.

Even more dramatic, however, is the state of trust among the least educated of U.S. adults.  In 1972, only 41 percent of Americans with a high school education or less said that people could be trusted. By 2010, the figure had more than halved, dropping to 19 percent. Moreover, when we look at the trust levels of our least educated parents who also have children 6 years old and under, we find that in 2010, a mere 10 percent of them felt that people could be trusted.

For these children, teachers are perhaps among their first encounters with high-trust adults, for teachers tend to be more trusting than other Americans. In the 2008 and 2010 GSS surveys, for example, teachers were 24 percentage points more likely than other Americans to say that people could be trusted.    

This is also the case for other social values such as helpfulness, cooperativeness, fairness and the like.  As a group, teachers tend, more than others, to have an optimistic view of human nature, to see people as being basically helpful and fair as opposed to being non-cooperative, only out for themselves, and disposed to take advantage of others. Here, again, teachers are likely to be many children's first encounter with adults who see more good than bad in people.

So, while teachers check the effects of some democratic values, such as freedom, they cultivate others, particularly the social values that underpin civil society and democracy.

Teachers have the impact they do in part because of the sheer size and reach of their occupation. In the U.S., for example, there are approximately 3.7 million elementary and secondary school teachers. America's teaching force is twice the size of its military and would fill more than 37 Rose Bowls.  Teaching is unique among modern occupations in that it reaches almost everyone. Few other occupations can claim its pervasiveness. The impact teachers have is profound and life-long. Most of us can still recall at least one or two of our elementary or secondary school teachers.

Teachers' impact on our values, however, is not the priority in education today.   In the U.S. almost everything is focused on tests and testing. Teachers are being judged by how much “value they add” to students’ scores.  But teachers may also add an important value by helping to stabilize our increasingly unsteady democracy.


De Tocqueville, A. (1969). Democracy in America  (J. P. Mayer, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York: Free Press.

Giddens, A. (2003).  Runaway world: How globalization is reshaping our lives. New York: Routledge.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.  

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone.  The Collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Smith, Tom W., Peter V. Marsden, and Michael Hout. (2011). General Social Survey, 1972-2010 [Cumulative File]. ICPSR31521-v1. Storrs, CT: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut/Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributors], 2011-08-05. doi:10.3886/ICPSR31521.v1

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2013 ID Number: 17121, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 7:34:21 PM

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