ATLANTA -- An overwhelming majority of Americans are frustrated that it's too difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while most also believe that teachers aren't paid enough, a new poll shows.
The Associated Press-Stanford University poll found that 78 percent think it should be easier for school administrators to fire poorly performing teachers. Yet overall, the public wants to reward teachers -- 57 percent say they are paid too little, with just 7 percent believing they are overpaid and most of the rest saying they're paid about right.
School districts have struggled for years over how to keep good teachers. This has led to controversial techniques like using standardized test scores to measure how much a student has learned in a teacher's class. Some districts, like New York City schools, are considering making the data public so parents know how teachers rate.
The Los Angeles school district announced in late August it would adopt such a model to assess teacher performance. Unions have fought against the release of such data, saying it's an unproven methodology that doesn't truly reflect how a teacher is performing in the classroom.
Carmen Williams, 53, an office manager from Yates City, Ill., said the issue is simple: Pay teachers more and get rid of the bad ones.
"Good teachers are hard to find, and one of the reasons they are hard to find is because they're not paid enough to support themselves, especially if they have a family," she said. "There are very good teachers out there, but there comes a day when they need to retire and they don't and what happens at that point is the kids suffer."
It's not just bad teachers that people want set loose. Nearly as many in the AP-Stanford poll -- 71 percent -- say it should be easier to fire principals at schools where students are performing poorly.
Half say that teachers' salaries should be based on their students' performance on statewide tests and on the evaluations they receive from local school officials. About 1 in 4 say pay should be determined solely by school administrators' ratings, while under 1 in 5 say salaries should be based only on how well students do on statewide testing.
While eager to send bad teachers packing, just 35 percent say a large number of bad teachers is a serious problem in America's schools and only 45 percent say teachers' unions are to blame. In contrast, more than half are critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials, and 55 percent say the inability to recruit and keep good teachers is a big problem.
Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, says some of the public's negative views come from frequent criticism from policymakers and in news reports.
"It's become a throwaway line: 'Oh, sure U.S. schools are lousy,"' said Cuban. "I think we have schizophrenia in the U.S. that we believe all U.S. schools are lousy except the schools we send our kids to."
To help school districts cope, the Obama administration has begun programs like the $4 billion "Race to the Top," which gave money to 11 states and Washington, D.C., in exchange for promises of innovative reforms to raise student achievement and improve graduation rates. Part of the requirements for getting the money included a teacher performance pay program and better use of student achievement data to make sure teachers are doing their jobs.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the poll results show that parents understand that teachers are not to blame for all the woes in public education.
"The scapegoating of teachers must stop and collective responsibility must start," Weingarten said. "This should be a wakeup call to education leaders and policymakers that all of us have to do our part. Of course teachers are important, but they can't do it all and policymakers have to stop blaming them."
People in the poll were closely divided over whether teachers should be allowed to strike, with just over half in favor.
The AP-Stanford poll on education was conducted Sept. 23-30 by Abt SRBI, Inc. It involved interviews on landline and cellular telephones with 1,001 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Stanford's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.