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?
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