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Schools Monday: Not-So-Liberal Teachers

Teachers, of course, are classic liberals, right? After all, consider the politics of teachers' unions, the trendiness of curricula and the generally left-leaning nature of academia. Well, maybe not. A fascinating new analysis comparing the social and political attitudes of teachers against those of other Americans finds teachers to be rather more conservative than the rest of the country in several important ways.

Teachers make up the largest group of Americans in any one line of work, about 3.5 million people teaching kids in primary and secondary schools. Despite the vast changes in the nation's workforce over the past couple of generations, teachers are still overwhelmingly women--about 75 percent of the nation's teachers. And teachers are smack in the middle of the nation's income spread, earning an average of $43,000 a year, slightly below the U.S. average of $44,000 for people with bachelor's degrees.

Robert Slater, a professor of education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, delved into the National Opinion Research Center's fabulously detailed database on social perspectives, one of the most reliable and widely-used research sources in the social sciences, and compared teachers both to non-teachers and to Americans who, like teachers, have completed college.

Here's some of what he found:

Teachers are more likely than Americans as a whole to go to church on a weekly basis and to want to make pornography illegal. And teachers are more likely--14 percentage points more likely-- than other well-educated Americans to oppose legal abortion. And teachers are between 10 and 15 points less likely than their fellow highly educated Americans to believe that homosexual relations are "not wrong at all."

About 37 percent of teachers say they attend church weekly or more often, while only 26 percent of other Americans do so. Teachers also are more likely to pray daily than other Americans--by a margin of about 9 to 11 percentage points--a finding that's been consistent in the research over three decades.

The pornography finding may point to a political polarization among teachers, as Americans on both the left and the right have been moving away from support of the Constitution's nearly-absolute guarantee of free speech and toward greater comfort with squelching socially unaccepted speech. In 2006, the NORC numbers show, 50 percent of teachers favored making porn illegal, compared to only 38 percent of non-teachers and only 29 percent of highly educated non-teachers.

There is an alternative explanation for that tendency among teachers: They may be especially wary of material that they believe can and does hurt children. Keep that possibility in mind as you consider a different batch of ways in which teachers differ from the rest of the population:

On student prayer, teachers break sharply with the rest of the nation, and in a more liberal direction. While 57 percent of non-teachers oppose the ban on school prayer, only 36 percent of teachers share that opposition. They have enough problems on their hands without adding religious controversies to their daily routines. But Slater notes that this may be a difference of education more than classroom experience: Other college graduates who are not teachers share teachers' opposition to school prayer, in almost identical proportions.

Whatever their political leanings, teachers tend to be more trusting and hopeful than the rest of us, which to my mind is a very good thing. Looking across data from 1985 to 2002, Slater found that about 69 percent of teachers believe the world is more good than evil, compared to only 53 percent of all Americans. In general, optimism tends to be higher among better educated people, but teachers are even more optimistic than their fellow college graduates--by about six percentage points, the research indicates.

Asked whether they believe that most people can be trusted, teachers are more than twice as likely to say yes than non-teachers who are not college graduates, by 47 percent to 23 percent.

Slater concludes that teachers "are both progressive and conservative," that they are more liberal than non-teachers when it comes to school prayer, yet more conservative than most Americans on abortion and homosexuality. Interestingly, teachers track the rest of the population almost exactly on whether government should help the poor (a number that has dropped like a stone since the 1970s, from 40 percent to 28 percent among all Americans and even more dramatically, from 48 percent to 24 percent among teachers.)

"People need to be disposed to learn and appreciate the values of freedom and equality, the importance of trust, and the priority of reason and law," Slater writes. Therefore, "we should want and expect our teachers, more than others, to be disposed to think and feel in ways supportive of a democracy."

That makes good sense to me, and certainly there's cause for pride in the findings that teachers are trusting and optimistic and want to protect the church-state divide. But some of the other attitudes Slater reports indicate a tradition-bound rigidity in the teacher corps. Some of our best schools and teachers are deeply grounded in very traditional and highly principled foundations, and surely there's value in both the progressive and traditional approaches to education. What these findings don't tell us is whether teachers' attitudes point to the kind of traditional thinking that thrives on open inquiry or to a more fearful and defensive traditionalism.

What do you make of these numbers?

By Marc Fisher |  January 28, 2008; 7:32 AM ET
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These numbers make sense to me. I've heard the old canard about liberal teachers before- a whole lot- but that so often came from 50 year old parents talking about 25 year old teachers. In that sense, almost every 25 year old is more liberal than a 50 year old. I can name about 5 liberal teachers in my school years, but easily 5 very conservative teachers- including a Spanish teacher who fled Cuba who was more right wing than Attila the Hun.

You know, at your current office, do you pledge allegiance to the flag every single morning? Well, teachers do.

I think it's too easy for outside agitators to blame teachers for being liberal because parents have a natural fear that they don't know what's "really" going on in their kids' school.

Posted by: DCer | January 28, 2008 8:56 AM

It would be interesting to see the differences between public school teachers, private and private/religious. The linked article did not provide this level of detail.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 28, 2008 9:24 AM

Teaching only became a female-dominated profession within the last 100-150 years. First women were allowed to teach a kind of informal primary school- real teachers were often too expensive for most towns. Then women crept into the upper primary years education- often for the same reasons. Men held on to secondary education for quite some time after that. Eventually women were able to teach at the secondary level, while men held on to higher education as their own realm. Just putting a different spin on the idea that teaching has always been a profession filled with women.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | January 28, 2008 9:36 AM

Since when did a stance opposing school prayer become a "liberal" position? Separation of church and state isn't owned solely by the right. The pro-school prayer position might be owned by the way-out religious fanatics who have hijacked the Republican party, but I doubt that the majority of non-evangelical Republicans would support school prayer. My own father, a lifelong Conservative, abhors religion and believes that it has no place in government or the public sphere.

Posted by: MD Mom | January 28, 2008 9:58 AM

The article also begs the question "To what extent is the teacher demographic changing?" Most of the "professions" have only allowed women in the last 40-50 years or so. So women who in 1960 might have become a teacher or a nurse became doctors and lawyers in the 1990s. When I went through High School in the late 1980's most of the "older" teachers were children of the 1960's. Their counterparts now are of course children of the Reagan era.

Posted by: Burke, VA | January 28, 2008 10:02 AM

Another way to interpret the "Should Government help the poor?" question is that most teachers are the front lines in helping impoverished children, and while they see a great need for it, they also see their own time for academics and their school resources stretched far too thin. So the implication might be that there should be other groups picking up the slack.

Posted by: Downtown | January 28, 2008 10:06 AM

The numbers cited and this study generally prove nothing. The primary complaint by conservatives is that COLLEGE PROFESSORS AND OTHER EMPLOYEES RELATING THERETO ARE OVERWHELMINGLY RADICALLY LEFT OF THE MAINSTREAM. Tellingly, the single study you cite in support of your observation does not include university or graduate school professors.

The bottom-line is that it is likely that more than 85% of university and graduate school profesors identify themselves as liberal or very liberal on the issues that matter. I would guess that if a similar poll were taken of Washington Post employees, the number would be even higher.

What do you make of these numbers?

Posted by: Robert Marley | January 28, 2008 10:12 AM

A lot of college and university professors talk the talk; part of a good education is looking critically at one's own values and beliefs regardless of whether that critical look results in change. One way of starting this is by raising questions that may be uncomfortable--particularly to those who don't want to be confused by differing points of view.
Walking the walk is a different matter. The survey recognizes that liberalism and conservatism extend far beyond the ballot box and reach into almost every phase of life. In this, I don't think (after more than twenty years of teaching at two colleges and a university) that I've known many left of the mainstream liberals, although the majority of those I've known would probably describe themselves as such.

Posted by: montgomery county | January 28, 2008 10:36 AM

Well, teacher positions for the most part aren't that great paying. I think nationally the lower your pay is, the more likely you are to vote Republican.

Posted by: John Lease | January 28, 2008 11:00 AM

This is another intellectually dishonest position by Marc, to stir up controversy. Almost all the stats out there show teaches more likely identify themselves as liberal or democrats. SOme may have conservative views on some issues, but all in all they are much more likely to favor a democrat in office.

However as an earlier poster said, the real complaint is about college professors. This is virtually unqeustioned by anyone with 2 ounces of common sense. Read the recent article from someone in the Clinton administration saying he was viewed as an extreme right winger for being a middle of the road democrat. Almost as bad as Marc's taxi argument, or his crazy idea that VA doesn't have the lower taxes of the three surrounding areas.

Posted by: Jon | January 28, 2008 11:31 AM

However as an earlier poster said, the real complaint is about college professors. This is virtually unqeustioned by anyone with 2 ounces of common sense.

Oh no it's not. First it's "teachers" then that's proven wrong, now you backtrack and say it's "college professors." Sigh, you'll flip flop and try anything won't you?

Well you lost, you're wrong, take it like a man and stop whining about everything.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 28, 2008 11:42 AM

Actually the lower your pay the more likely you are to vote democratic.

Posted by: Fairfax County | January 28, 2008 11:46 AM

What does going to church have to do with being conservative? I go to church and I'm "liberal."

Posted by: Joseph Calim | January 28, 2008 11:47 AM

Nothing has been proven. All that was shown that some teachers have views that may be aligned with conservatives. I know plenty of liberals who go to church.

Posted by: Jon | January 28, 2008 12:16 PM

Forgot to include the link to the post article :

To summarize: 72 say they are liberal 15 % conservative.

50 % Democrats, 11% republicans
which leaves 22% percent who may (and many probably are) be left of the democratic party.

Having a liberal or conservative position on one issue does not make you a conservative overall. It would be interesting to find out how many of the individuals surveyed are union members (a group known to be VERY VERY pro-democrat.)

Whats next, is Marc going to try and argue that teachers unions rank and file members are not normally democrats?

Posted by: Jon | January 28, 2008 12:22 PM

There is a big difference between the typical liberal-leaning politics of the heads of the teachers' unions and the rank-and-file membership, particularly when the membership has no real ability to opt out of the union system. I would expect the results are fairly accurate for primary and secondary education.

As far as the political leanings of those in higher education, the first paragraph of this article from the Daily Princetonian from 1/21/08 should sum it up:
"All Princeton faculty members who have given to 2008 presidential candidates so far have donated to Democrats, according to federal records of donations to presidential campaigns from Princeton University employees."

Posted by: Leesburger | January 28, 2008 12:22 PM

I think the "evidence" for your very broad conclusion is extraordinarily flimsy; the more meaningful test of a person's "conservatism" or "liberalism" is more likely to find expression in their voting patterns than in some vacuous comparison "against other well-educated Americans" concerning abortion, etc.

Posted by: Dave in VA | January 28, 2008 12:24 PM

Could it be that the higher percentage of teacher against porn is related to the higher percentage of teachers being female?

Posted by: DH | January 28, 2008 12:41 PM

Women love porn just as much as men. I know I do!

Posted by: Mary | January 28, 2008 1:29 PM

As a teacher, I have to comment regarding teachers unions: the majority of teachers I know who belong to teachers unions like the NEA or AFT do so because of the legal protection they provide. Although rare, many teachers are fearful of the possibility of a lawsuit by some crazy parent, and join the union simply for the protection they provide..

Posted by: Linda | January 28, 2008 1:29 PM

"Well, teacher positions for the most part aren't that great paying", says John Lease. Did you not read the statement early in the article that said teachers earn a salary similar to the average of other college educated workers?
I am tired of the constant whining that teachers are poorly paid. Not only is the salary on a par with others, the job security and benefits they receive are off the charts. Health insurance that is almost fully paid by the school system, great retirement plans, 13 or 14 weeks a year vacation, snow days (how many do you get), and don't get me started about the typical teacher's day. Whether elementary or secondary level, the teacher is not with the "snotty nosed brats" that much because the kids are off at art class, music class, P.E., computer lab, lunch, recess, etc., etc. The actual teaching time per teacher is minimal.
Someone else has already straightened Mr. Lease out about the correlation between income and political leaning.

Posted by: I want to be a teacher | January 28, 2008 1:50 PM

As the son of someone who has a elementary school teacher as a mother, your comments about the time it takes to teach are just not accurate. Teachers often have to watch their kids during lunch, and are outside during recess. My mother gets about 30-45 minutes a day to do whatever she needs to take care of. Also teaching involves a lot of planning and after hours work. Lesson plans do not develop themselves. Once kids start taking tests, those have to be graded as well.

Posted by: Jon | January 28, 2008 1:59 PM

Lesson plans are developed in the first couple of years of teaching, and then recycled year after year with minor "freshening". These teachers who have to do school related work on their own time must be goofing off during the hours a day when the kids are in someone else's care.

Posted by: Poor teachers | January 28, 2008 2:58 PM

What hours a day? I teach, and while I would love to get these hours off in a day, I don't. I think you have my job confused with that of the average govie.

Posted by: Teacher | January 28, 2008 3:02 PM

Marc Fisher is a liberal and he feels guilty about it. That is why he writes these types of articles citing fantastic studies that try to distort reality.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of teachers (at any level) are left-leaning, Marx-loving, card-carrying liberals. This bedrock rule of political affiliation is also true for professions such as, e.g., trial lawyers, union members, and government workers.

I am waiting on pins and needles for Marc's next column that will perhaps cite a study suggesting that there are more democrats who own assault rifles than previously thought...

Posted by: Babe Ruth | January 28, 2008 5:04 PM

I just noticed that the author of the "fascinating new analysis" cited by Marc in his "column" is the Hoover Institution.

I encourage your readers to plug this organization into Wikipedia. What one will find is that the Hoover Institution is a right-wing think tank that, among other things, announced on September 8, 2007, that former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had accepted an invitation to join the institution as a one-year visiting fellow. Other notable fellows include: Retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, former commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Newt Gingrich, Thomas Sowell, Dinesh D'Souza, Shelby Steele, Edwin Meese and Pete Wilson.

Thanks for fully disclosing the source of your thoughts, Marc. I will wait for all of the knee-jerk liberals who posted above in agreement with your analysis to retract their comments.

The study you cite in support of your column has as much credibility as the CIA's assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities in late 2002. Can anyone say, slamdunk?

Posted by: Aaron Burr | January 28, 2008 5:31 PM

I do not know what university Robert Marley went to...I went to UC, as in California, that Robert may think must be 99% liberal. The Econ department was predominately unabashed right wing Friedman non socially responsible free market-eers. In fact, being a research institution, most professors I had contact with were major capitalists, the bigger the research grants (that of course enhanced their compensation) the better. The majority of the professors at the UC campus I was at were into the Republican country club life style. There is an absolute fallacy that US campuses are liberal. It is called right wing propaganda.

One thing that may distort the teacher statistics. Most people with college educations find better employment in non rural areas. Teachers work in every county in America, urban, suburban, rural, rich and poor. Among teachers, I think you have a greater segment than the general population of college educated in rural and less affluent counties. These communities would tend to be more conservative and more religious. I think this alone would be enough to skew the sample towards a more conservative response than the whole population of college graduates on certain issues.

Posted by: Chris | January 28, 2008 11:41 PM

By reading the above post you would think so. Anyone with any knowledge of politics would not argue that the WaPo is part of the vast right wing conspiracy. There is an article posted above by this very newspaper that strongly supports the idea that most professors are liberal. Almost 9 liberals and 1 undecided/ conservative at the top universities. The facts clearly state that academia is liberal. Fighting it is as silly as pretending the earth isn't getting warmer.

Posted by: WaPost part of Conspiracy? | January 29, 2008 12:13 AM

So, teachers are idiots. Who would've known?

Posted by: Bob | January 29, 2008 6:39 AM

Well, Chris, commenting above, may be half right. Wrong about professors, whatever Chris' personal experience (maybe Chris was at San Diego). Most professors are liberal-to-radical-left; this simply is a statistical fact derived from their self-identification in surveys. The few Republicans hiding in academia are almost all concentrated in the sciences. That leaves the pursuit of knowledge in the humanities fully in the hands of the left.

And their unending stream of atrocities committed against the free exchange of ideas on campus is abundantly documented by nonpartisan groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Again, there really is no honest counter-argument to be made.

But Chris is right to wonder if there aren't social or class reasons that primary/secondary teachers aren't as liberal across the board as their similarly educated peers in academia.

I would speculate that teaching school continues to be the leg-up to the professional class that it has always been, and that teachers come into college with more working class, family values orientations, which their leftist professors cannot completely erase in four or five short years.

Posted by: Franklin | January 29, 2008 9:43 AM

TO John Leese,

The higher a persons income the MUCH more likely that person is a Republican/conservative. What makes up the Democratic party? Unions, blue collar works, struggling African Americans, etc. Republicans as a whole are much wealthier then Democrats. Just an FYI to you.

Posted by: D W | January 30, 2008 4:17 PM

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