Ep. 261: Quarterly Teacher Survey – June 2021

August 6, 2021

In this episode, we share our top findings from our second quarterly survey of educators this year—including teacher opinions on COVID-19 and flexible teaching locations.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. And we’ve got a special podcast today. As many regular listeners know, every month we poll a nationally representative sample of Americans and ask them their opinions about education issues. And every quarter, we poll a nationally representative sample of teachers. Well, this is one of those quarterly podcasts, so those of you who listen monthly can hear John Kristof, Jen Wagner, and a rotating cast of characters and I talk through that. But today on the podcast, we have a familiar voice, though maybe one you haven’t heard in a little bit here, my colleague, Drew Catt. And joining us all the way from Lakeland, Florida—sunny Lakeland, Florida—we have EdChoice fellow and dean, newly installed, dean of the College of Education and academic director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University, Dr. James Shuls. Drew, James, great to have you on the podcast today.

James Shuls: Hey, thanks for having me. I’ll tell you what, you’ve got all of that right except for the sunny part. I think we moved in the hurricane season or something. It’s raining every day. As our realtor said, “It’s a deluge.” She said it a little strangely, but it’s not a word I use often, but it’s been rainy.

Mike McShane: Well, James, one thing that I appreciate about you is no matter what the weather is outside, you always bring your own sunshine. Anyway, so today, just to give folks a little bit about background, this poll that we’re talking about was just over 1,000 teachers, 1,001. They were polled between June 11 and June 30 of this year by our partners at Morning Consult. As always, you can go to the website, edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com, and you can see the full report. We’re obviously just going to do the kind of movie trailer here today and talk about some of the highlights, but the whole this is available there, as well as the questionnaire and all of the cross tabs, if you’re interested in digging into more of the details that are here.

So, our podcast today I think is basically going to break down into kind of four chapters, four parts. And the first chapter is one that’s obviously on the top of everybody’s mind, and it is teacher opinions about the coronavirus. Obviously, we’re talking a lot about vaccines, and particularly with the rise of the Delta variant and others. Please forgive the seagulls in the background there if you heard those. Talking about vaccine mandates, we’re also interested in the attitudes that teachers have towards returning to work and their views towards pods and tutoring. But at the beginning, Drew, we’ve asked this question: “When an FDA approved vaccine to prevent COVID is available for you or your child, would you agree to be vaccinated, or would you agree for your child to be vaccinated?” And based on our findings, it seems like teachers are more likely to say that they themselves would get vaccinated and that they would vaccinate children more than the general public. Do I have that right? And if so, what do you make of that?

Drew Catt: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what it looks like. I don’t know, personally it’s, look everyone that goes into education that I know of wants what’s best for children. And when you have these hosts of medical and scientific organizations saying, “Hey, these things are good to protect the safety of your school,” it makes sense that teachers would be more likely to get them because, I don’t know for me, and I don’t have the Catholic guilt. I just have the guilt. But for me, I would feel terrible if I got sick and then I spread it to one of my students, if I were the teacher. I would feel absolutely terrible. So part of it is maybe protecting themselves, and part of it is maybe protecting their students.

And I think I did a back of the napkin estimate back in March, April 2020 when this whole pandemic started. And just kind of ball park, the percentage of teachers that would be considered high risk, and the percentages are not that different from the percentages that have already been vaccinated. So if you consider those who have been teaching for a long time, that fall into the age categories, or combined with just the general population distribution of asthma, diabetes, that sort of thing, yeah, the percentages were eerily similar.

Mike McShane: It’s interesting too, I know from our general population polling, I think when we asked the question, we do all the demographic breakdowns of, “Would you take the vaccine, or are you planning to take the vaccine?” And if memory serves me correct, the single group mostly likely to say that they’re going to get a vaccine are people with a bachelor’s degree or more. And given that teachers are in that group, that would sort of make sense that there’s overlap between them. But now, James, we asked a second question there, so that was just general sort of propensity, general views on it. But as I said, stuff coming up in the news now about vaccine mandates, so whether teachers will be mandated to have vaccines. And so we asked this question: “When an FDA approved vaccine to prevent COVID is available, do you think it should be mandatory or encouraged?” And we asked four different groups.

So one was, and again, we’re asking teachers these questions. But with first said, “Teachers and other staff working at public K-12 schools, teachers and other staff working at private K-12 schools, students attending public K-12 schools, and students attending private schools.” And we gave the options of mandatory, encouraged but not mandatory, and then neither encouraged nor mandatory. And the number that maybe people are most interested in, but I’m interested in your thoughts on any of the other ones as you look at them. But when we talk about just teachers and staff working a public K-12 schools, so 46% of the teachers that we polled said that COVID vaccines should be mandatory. 43% said, “encouraged but not mandatory.” And 11% said, “neither encouraged nor mandatory.” And that mandatory number is up six points from our first quarter polling. The encouraged is down six points from our polling. And the neither encouraged nor mandatory is the same.

So, when you look at that, I mean, it seems to me like we see a general trend in the direction towards people being pro vaccine, but a pretty serious split between those who think it should be mandatory and those who think it should just be encouraged. You have a great experience of preparing future school administrators. I mean, if you were looking at that from sort of their perspective, where you have a sort of split on these things, how do you think they’re going to be able to navigate that? Is this going to be a point of contention in schools? How do you see all that playing out?

James Shuls: Yeah. I think the first thing to keep in mind here, and this goes back to the previous item as well, and all the other issues that we’re going to be talking about here, is that education is different from almost every other profession. It is different because you have, let’s say you’re a high school teacher, and you have a class of 25 students filtering through your class every hour. Many teachers are dealing with 150 different students coming into their room, who they’re in close proximity with throughout a day. And not only that, those customers, so to speak, or students who are coming into the classroom, many of them don’t want to be there, and don’t want to follow directions. Right?

So they’re dealing with a population of individuals they have to constantly remind to engage in safe practices, put up your mask, wash your hands, so these things a rational adult mind do. But you have to understand that they might look at this situation a little differently than other folks. And then secondly, public educators are used to students needing vaccines before coming to school. Students get all kinds of vaccines before they come to school. Sure, they’ve been around for a lot longer. They’re more established. But requiring vaccinations to enroll in public schools is the norm. And so many teachers are looking at this situation, you have to think about it from their lens. And so to see almost have, 46% of teachers saying that we should require teachers to get the COVID vaccination isn’t that surprising to me.

As you said, these are educated folks who generally tend to think the vaccinations are good. We’re now several months into vaccines, so there’s no widespread zombie apocalypse breaking out, so I think I’m not surprised to see these numbers. Now to your question about do we have some disagreements? Now it depends on how vehement people are at the local level. These fights I think are often going to be fought at the local level when some teachers won’t work, or say they won’t work, unless everyone’s wearing masks and is vaccinated. And others, especially that 10% to 11% of people who say, “No, we don’t need vaccinations,” start disagreeing with one another. I think those are the two extremes you have to be concerned about, not the people who think that it should be encouraged, and are already vaccinated themselves. It’s those two opposites extremes that will cause difficulties at school board meetings.

Mike McShane: Sure. And it’s really interesting too because I would say a number that did surprise me, so we asked this question, and we’ve asked it before about, “How comfortable are teachers to returning to school in person right now?” So this wasn’t even in the future, so this was right now, as of kind of mid-June. And our sample of all teachers, if you combine the answers, we gave them very comfortable, somewhat comfortable, don’t know, but then somewhat uncomfortable and very uncomfortable. Combining the two comfortable categories, almost all teachers, it was 84%. 84% of teachers said that they were comfortable going back to school. That’s up 17 points from our first quarter. And that’s across the board, when you break it down to district school teachers, charter school teachers, private school teachers. Private school teachers, it’s 90%, and that’s up 31 points from the first quarter.

So Drew, I wonder, there seems to be a lot of conversation right now about who wants to go back to school, or whether people don’t want to go back to school. But it seems like from our polling, 84% of teachers, and public schools teachers, 83%, say that they’re comfortable going back. So what’s going on there?

Drew Catt: It’s really interesting because I had to look back at some other numbers. Yeah, that’s about the same percentage that said that they have already been vaccinated, or would agree to be vaccinated. So yeah, that’s really fascinating. Also, I couldn’t help but notice there seemed to be a correlation between the teaching and comfortability going back. And I wonder how much of that is there as well, just like the longer you’ve been teaching, the more likely you are to be in a high risk category, the more likely you are to have already been vaccinated, versus also just the teachers that are used to it.

And I know we’re going to get into this a little later on, but just from being married to a teacher and hearing some of the stories, it’s the older teachers that tended to not have as positive of an experience teaching online. So they’re also probably, I would hypothesize, that the most willing to want to go back and say that they’re comfortable going back because that’s going to be a lot more comfortable than them trying to mess with all the technological issues that they have encountered over the last year and a half trying to teach online.

James Shuls: I want to jump in there, Mike, that I think Drew brings a very good point about teachers, their success in the online teaching. If it was possible to cross cut these data, or look back at responses across different questions, I would bet that the people more inclined to say they’re not comfortable going back now have already been vaccinated and think it should be mandated. That’s the group I think is more likely to say they don’t feel comfortable going back. Also, as an aside, in August, I would say it’s not uncommon for 10% to 15% of teachers not wanting to go back to school anyway, even without COVID.

Mike McShane: Fair point.

James Shuls: Nobody wants summer to end.

Mike McShane: Right. No one does, teachers and non-teachers alike. So now in the next kind of section of our conversation, I want to look kind of past the coronavirus. And so part of this is around efforts that I think folks are going to try to make up for some of the learning loss that took place, but then also, looking at other sort of alternatives for things going forward. And one of the things that I want to highlight is the idea of tutoring. It seems like lots of folks are really bullish on tutoring as a means of catching folks up. And so obviously, in order for tutoring to work, we need tutors, and conceivably millions of school children, I think in our last podcast when we looked at … We were surveying parents about, “Do you want your child to be tutored? Are you looking for tutors?” Huge proportions of them said they are either currently tutoring their children, currently looking for a tutor, or will be looking in the future.

So it seems like, I don’t know, if anyone’s looking for a side hustle right now, tutoring might be the way to go. And what’s fascinating was that when we asked teachers about this, we asked, “How interested are you in tutoring students outside of school hours?” When it comes to all teachers, 26% said they were very interested, and 39% said that they were somewhat interested, so it seems like you’ve got a lot of interest in this. So do we think that teachers are going to be a kind of pool of folks that we could potentially use for tutoring programs this school year?

James Shuls: So one thing about your question is, it doesn’t say for pay, or for extra money, or anything along those lines. And so I think that’s not clear. I’ve been in places, in school districts, where there’s an expectation that teachers are going to stay after school and work with students. And so to your point about the numbers, I mean, the numbers are pretty high. And I think this goes to what Drew was saying earlier, most teachers want what’s best for students. And most teachers just want to help out. I think you might see slightly different numbers if you say, “For additional pay, how interested in tutoring would you be?” I think you’d see those numbers go up. I think you’d see the, don’t know, no opinion decrease when people have some more details about this. But I think if there were a pool of funds, or some sort of an ESA account for after school tutoring, summer tutoring, I think absolutely you’d have plenty of teachers that would be interested in ready to sign up for that type of program.

Drew Catt: I agree that whether or not it’s for pay is part of it. I think the amount of time is also part of it. If it’s for 30 minutes after school, versus for an hour and a half session for free after school, I feel like those would be different results as well. I don’t know any teacher that if they don’t have something coming up, like they have to pick their kids up from daycare, like my family does, wouldn’t be able to like, “Oh, yeah. I can tutor you for 10 minutes after school.” I don’t think I’ve met a single teacher that wouldn’t jump at that opportunity to help a student.

Mike McShane: So another potential sort of future of education, and I say that because of my recent book, Hybrid Homeschooling: A Guide to the Future of Education, available at your local online book retailer, was we’ve been asking a question about hybrid homeschooling. So again, if you’ve read my book, which I imagine everyone who’s listening to this obviously has, but hybrid homeschools are schools where students attend class for part of the time at home and part of the time at school. So we’ve been asking a question both of families, but now also of teachers. We asked this question: “After the pandemic, if given the option, how many days would you prefer to teach your students in person at school each week?”

And look, 52% of teachers said they want to spend all five days teaching in school. But what that means is that 48% of teachers would seem to want some more flexibility in their schedule, either a small percentage say they want to teach completely outside of school. But what’s that? Forty-four percent or so, or somewhere in some combination between one and four days at school, and obviously the other days at home. James, as you look at preparing teachers, preparing administrators and others, is there any talk about this? Do you hear teachers talking about wanting more flexibility? Do you see more of this happening on the horizon, where schools might have more flexible schedules, and therefore, teachers might have a little bit of wiggle room in how many days that they actually head into the school to teach?

James Shuls: So, I think you see a push for four-day schools, but in many rural places. That push because of COVID, it wasn’t because of the desire necessarily. It was mostly savings, and some cited the fact that it might help them recruit other teachers who only want to work four days a week. So I think that this polling is interesting, and it’s interesting that it’s pretty similar across different types of schools. You have higher percentage of district school teachers that want to be five days in person, but pretty similar percentages across charter, private, and district schools of people wanting various different types of things. And I think part of what’s happening here is COVID allowed us to see that other things are possible.

You go through life, you only do things one way, and then something happens. And you see, wow, this could work another way. And you start realizing that you like that other way. I think as we see here in the polling, the majority of teachers, the majority of students, are still going to want to be at school five days a week. But I think it’s interesting that we could see lots of opportunities open up for other sorts of alternative arrangements for students and teachers.

Mike McShane: So we asked this question, I’m talking about alternative arrangements or things that are out there, so we gave teachers this sort of suite of options. And this is the same question we’ve been giving school parents, when we asked about making up. Again, what are we going to do to make up for what happened in the pandemic? So we asked this question:” How helpful do you think each of the following will be in helping students, or your child, or children?” When we asked school parents this, next school year, following the COVID-19 outbreak. So it’s a mix. We asked them about counseling and mental health services. We talked about tutoring, individualized learning plans, providing high speed internet. And we got kind of a mix of answers. Teachers and parents, but particularly teachers are very bullish on more counseling and mental health resources. Teachers are more bullish on tutoring, though to be fair, school parents are still pretty bullish on them. When you look at that sort of suite of things that are available, and the spread between what teachers think is useful, what school parents think are useful, how do you make sense of all those things?

Drew Catt: Yeah. For me, it was interesting that what I saw as the top two parent responses, which were providing the kids with high speed internet and providing students with laptops or tablets, those are the ones that most directly were visible for them over the last year and a half. So that’s what kind of struck me the most. Then you have that gap with offering tutoring programs, and the gap with the counseling or mental health support. Those are the things that I would think would be, in all honestly, because kids keep stuff from their parents, that’s kind of part of being a kid. Right?

So those are the things that are more likely to be, I would assume, more likely to be more easily visible to the teachers than they necessarily are to the parents. So I think that’s part of it as well, is just what each population sees more with the students in their general interactions. Yeah, that’s really, really fascinating though. It really gives me hope for the future of individualized learning plans based on student needs, that about 2/3 of parents, and more than 2/3 of teachers said that’s something that should be happening.

Mike McShane: For sure. So this is an EdChoice podcast, and so James, since you’re on it, we’re going to talk about school choice policy here. Obviously, there’s been a lot of conversation in the national sort of education media about the growth of school choice and all the school choice bills that were passed this year, particularly several really big, important education savings accounts bills, so we asked teachers, and we did this for vouchers and tax credits too, and folks can check those out on the website. But today, I guess we’ll just talk about the ESAs. So we asked our sample of teachers: Do you support or suppose education savings accounts? And we give them a little explanation of what that is.

And I think it’s kind of interesting that we see a 74/18 break, which is to say that 74% of teachers say that they either somewhat or strongly support, and only 18% say that they strongly or somewhat oppose. Now again, it doesn’t seem to me, when we talk about teachers’ unions and we talk about other things, I don’t see a 74/18 split reflected. But again, you’re someone who actually spends time around at least people who are preparing to be teachers and others. Do you see, maybe is it amongst young teachers, or nontraditional teachers, or just anybody? Do you see folks that might be more open to things like ESAs, that maybe this is this kind of silent majority of teachers who would be open to something like this.

James Shuls: I think a lot of teachers would be open to something. I think the issue that we run into with teachers is the message getting to them. And whose message gets to them? I was at a dinner not long ago, right before I left St. Louis, with a group of educators. And one was an accomplished charter school principal. And she was asking questions about an ESA program, and how an ESA program works. And this is someone who’s in a school choice related … She’s at a charter school. She’s not in a voucher school, or a private school, or anything like that. But she still is in the realm of choice. She’s in education. And she still had lots of questions about how these programs work and what they are exactly.

And as I’m sitting around this table with five people, none of them really quite understood exactly what an ESA was and how it worked. And so I think part of the challenge here with educators is helping them understand what it is without them getting all of the negativity from the teachers’ unions, when the union’s message is clearly this will destroy public education. It’s the worst thing ever. And that’s simply not the case. And if we can get them unbiased information, as you do in your poll, it just states matter of factly what it is, and helps people understand, they’re generally supportive of it. It’s when they start getting the biased interpretations, they start getting these negative messages, that I think it produces those strongly negative numbers that you see there.

Mike McShane: Okay. So we’re sort of running short on time here. The fourth and final chapter of today’s conversation, I wanted to refer to as a kind of polling potpourri, where we ask a whole set of questions about a couple various different issues that included whether teachers would recommend the profession to others, the attitudes they have towards teacher pay, where they would send their own children. And we also asked a series of these kind of diversity and inclusion questions, as things like critical race theory and others become more popular topics in the news right now. So we don’t probably have time to cover all of those. But what I was thinking was in the spirit of choice, perhaps James and Drew, each of you might choose one of those, of those four that we were potentially talking about discussing. Did one of those stand out to you? What did we find? What does that make you think? Drew, I might have you go first.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I’m going to go with the one that really sticks out to me being married to a district school teacher, and that is the net promoter score, which is whether or not you’re more likely to recommend teaching. And yeah, that difference is fascinating, a negative 17 for district school teachers, so that basically 40% give those lower responses on saying they’re not at all likely to recommend teaching to a friend or family member, with only 23% on the positive side.

Mike McShane: Yeah. For those of you that might not be familiar, maybe you’ve gotten one of these things before, they say, “Would you recommend this? Rate it on a scale of one to 10.” You’re considered a promoter if you rank it a nine or a 10, a passive if it’s a seven or an eight, or a detractor if you’re a zero to six. And your net promoter score is you subtract the detractors from the promoters. And so yes, as Drew brought up, while it’s above water for private school teachers and charter school teachers, it is below water for district school teachers.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I think part of that just also shows maybe that has to do with the amount of flexibility that charter school teachers and private school teachers have had over the last year and a half compared to the potential lack of flexibility that have been afforded to district school teachers over the last year and a half.

Mike McShane: Wonderful. James, what stood out to you?

James Shuls: So I think this next piece ties into that. And I’m going to go to the salary question, where you asked if salary should increase, and they have a group of the folks that have no information. So should salaries increase, stay about the same, or decrease? A district or a public school teacher’s salaries. And then you have another group where you give them the information about how much teachers actually make. And as you always see in these polling numbers, you see when people don’t have information, a higher percentage think that salaries should increase than when they do have information.

So when you give people information, they are less like to think that we should increase teacher salaries. But they’re still overwhelmingly in support of increasing teacher salaries. So private school teachers, 70% say we should increase salaries. District school teachers, 82% say we should increase salaries. That’s when they receive the information. So I think part of what happens in public education, and even without information, the reason we see this gap is there is a perception that teachers are poorly paid. And we might agree that we should pay teachers more, but this idea just is so pervasive that teachers are underpaid. And then when you add that into the fact that teachers oftentimes feel like they don’t have autonomy, they can’t make decisions. They have all these other issues that they’re wrestling with. I think the salary issue is a key piece why many teachers don’t want to recommend teaching as a profession for other people to go into because they themselves feel very strongly like they’re underpaid. So that’s an issue that needs to be resolved. I think these two questions that Drew and I are touching on are very much related to one another.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. And here’s a point where I’m going to plug for our listeners. You can check out EdChoice’s TikTok account, or TikTok page. I’m too millennial to know what the actual sort of landing page is called, whether it’s a page, or I don’t know, a flipadeedoo, I don’t know. But anyway, we are on TikTok at edchoice.official. And I’m putting that out there because we’ve done a bunch of these short informative videos about things like school spending and teacher pay. And perusing through the comments of them, James, I can only verify some things you’ve said of just the degree to which people seem to not understand how much money is spent on schools, how much teachers get paid, how big class sizes are, some kind of basic facts about American education. And then I’m not surprised when people are super fired up, if you think that teachers make half of what they make, or if you think your state spends a third of what it actually does, I get why you’d be upset about that. I get why you’d be angry. I get why you wouldn’t want to promote it, or you’d have negative opinions about it.

But I think that’s part of our job to try and better inform people about the actual facts. And I can think of no one else that I would rather spend some time explaining facts with than Drew and James. Thank you so much for joining us today. I want to give a shout out to Jacob Vinson, our fantastic podcast producer. He cuts these things out and makes us … I shouldn’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for myself, makes me seem more articulate and smarter than I actually am. And I think we all know that’s a lot of work.

But one last bit here, just want to give the usual shout out. Please subscribe, whatever sort of mechanism that you’re listening to, please check out our podcast, subscribe. You get this podcast. You get our monthly tracker update. You get my colleague—Jason Bedrick does these great kind of big picture podcasts with interesting thinkers. I do a podcast called Cool Schools, where I interview interesting and innovative school leaders. Drew, I know, does profiles of researchers. Our state team gets you all up to date on the goings on in state capitals. And please, also, I would be remiss if I didn’t plug, check out our new website, www.edchoice.org. It was recently redone. It looks amazing. It’s super user friendly. Check it out. So Drew, James, it was great to be with all of you. And everyone listening, I look forward to talking to you another time in the future on another edition of EdChoice Chats.