Academic journal article Education Next

American Teachers: What Do They Believe?

Academic journal article Education Next

American Teachers: What Do They Believe?

Article excerpt

In our liberal-democratic society there is always a desire to separate the teaching of values from the teaching of reading, writing, and mathematics, the so-called value-neutral subjects. But we have learned--and every parent who has done homework with his child knows--that, like it or not, we teach values in the course of teaching these subjects. We teach, for example, the values of hard work, of doing things that we might not like, of persevering in the face of difficulty, of listening to and respecting the efforts of adults, of self-initiated effort, of postponement of gratification, and of meeting deadlines. All of these simple lessons are moral instruction, lessons about what is important and about what ought to be taken seriously. So even if what we teach is value-neutral, our teaching--by the manner in which we do it and the nature of our interactions in the course of it--conveys messages to our children about how they should regard themselves, consider others, and meet their obligations. Teaching is as much a moral effort as it is an intellectual enterprise; teachers not only educate our children how to think and solve problems, they also inform children's beliefs about what is right, good, and important in life, shaping their values in the process.

There are nearly three and a half million public and private elementary and secondary teachers in the United States, more individuals by far than in any other occupation. During the course of the 2005-06 school year, each teacher spent upward of 1,260 hours working with our nation's 54 million elementary and secondary school students. It would seem useful to know something about the values they hold. Where do America's elementary and secondary school teachers stand on freedom of speech, family values, and economic inequality, for example? What do they believe about religion and human nature?

The short answer to these questions is that we simply do not know. There has been a good deal of quality research and knowledge generated about teachers in the context of teaching. But when it comes to their lives outside of education, especially their general values and beliefs, we have relatively little empirical knowledge, especially of the American teaching cadre as a whole.

To get a better sense of teachers' values, we can turn to the National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) General Social Survey, one of the largest, most reliable, and frequently used data sets in the social sciences. It is an almost-annual, national sample of Americans in which, of course, teachers are included. The version used here is the one made conveniently available online by the Computer-Assisted Survey Methods Program at the University of California, Berkeley. What follows is a summary description of some values of America's public and private elementary and secondary school teachers gleaned from data collected from 1972 to 2006.


The teaching profession is surprisingly homogeneous, according to 2004 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Most of the elementary and secondary school teachers in this country are women, about 75 percent overall, and 90 percent of those who teach in elementary schools. Most are white; only about 9 percent of America's elementary and secondary school teachers are African American, compared to about 13 percent of the U.S. population as a whole and about 16 percent of their students. Most teachers are in their 40s; their median age is 46.

If we examine the NORC data from 2000 to 2006, we find that, on average, our teachers have been in the classroom for about 14 years. For their efforts, they earn about $43,000 a year, close to the $43,954 median annual earnings of Americans with bachelor's degrees. In 2006, two-thirds of America's teachers said they were very satisfied with their work, and that they would either certainly or probably be willing to teach again.

Free Speech

For almost every year from 1972 to 2006, Americans have been asked if they would allow a communist, homosexual, atheist, or racist to speak in their community, teach at a local college, or have their books in the local library. …

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