You are here

On Topic

Taking the pulse of the teaching profession

Giving teachers a stronger voice could reverse troubling job satisfaction trends
Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of Center on Education Policy, says teacher morale will improve if they have more say in the directions of their directions.
Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of Center on Education Policy, says teacher morale will improve if they have more say in the directions of their directions.

What do teachers think of their profession? How do they feel about government intrusion into what they teach and how they conduct themselves in the classroom?

A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy is meant to put a spotlight on their opinions.  

Titled, “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” the survey not only indicates that public school teachers are frustrated with shifting policies, but a majority are losing enthusiasm for the job, says Diane Stark Rentner, the center’s deputy director. Moreover, nearly half say they would quit teaching now if they could find a higher-paying job.

“There are so many questions and policy issues that directly impact teachers, yet we really didn’t know their thoughts on those or many other issues surrounding the profession,” Stark Rentner says. The report, available at http://DAmag.me/cep, is intended as a benchmark for future surveys.

One of the more telling results of your survey was that teachers don’t feel their opinions are considered.

Right. Close to half feel that they aren’t heard at their school level. They don’t feel their opinions or thoughts are being considered in different policy decisions.

People outside education seem to have an inordinate amount of power over what goes on in the classroom.

Education, certainly in the last 20 or 30 years, has become much more politicized and the end result is that you have state legislators weighing in on matters. You have many governors playing a much more active role. 

I’ve worked in Washington since 1985, so I’ve seen the change in the federal role—from when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization didn’t even rate a mention in The Washington Post, to where No Child Left Behind brought weekly updates.

It’s good that people are concerned about the quality of education. But on the downside it has given more power to the policymakers and less to the teachers.

Is that why the survey also reports a declining enthusiasm for the profession?

When you’ve done a job for a number of years, many teachers lose their enthusiasm. We did a cross tabulation of those respondents who feel their voices are heard and those who don’t and how they answer the enthusiasm question. 

I think it’s telling that if you feel that you have a stake in decision-making at the school building level you are likely to be happier in your job and express more optimism than if you feel that things are being done to you.

Was there any result that proved opposite of your pre-survey perceptions?

When it came to testing, we asked which test they’d want to keep or eliminate. I really thought we’d see very strong majorities of teachers saying, “Get rid of the state tests. Get rid of the district tests.”

But when you look at those results, about 63 percent want to keep them but reduce the frequency or duration of the tests. And then there were another 10 to 15 percent who want to keep things as they are. I really thought we’d see the majority of teachers saying get rid of them.

The takeaway is that teachers see some value to statewide and district tests. They just think it’s way too much, way too often.

The survey also shows teachers think too much time is spent preparing for tests.

Right. There’s more data that we’re going to report that looks more closely at that question—like type of school and poverty level and so on. With the elementary kids it’s not only the content, but teaching them how to take a test and not to be nervous about taking a test and making them feel comfortable in that environment.

But, again, I think the message teachers are sending is: Let’s just not test as much as we do. These tests are of some value, but they don’t need to be as long or as frequent.

So, we might see testing every other year or tests being shorter. Or perhaps using the interim tests throughout the school year and then adding those up for a final score, rather than interim tests and then a big final. I think there are solutions out there, and teachers definitely should be part of the discussion because they’re dealing with it every day.

A majority of teachers said they were evaluated based on student test scores. Did they object to that?

When you read the open-ended comments, you clearly see this is an area where they wanted to vent. They’d say, “So much rides on this test for my future.” Some teachers were very concerned.

I think one troubling thing our survey shows is that the feedback teachers are getting is not all that helpful. If they were getting this valuable feedback that was really informing their practice and making them better teachers, then maybe it might be worth it.

Regardless of whether test scores are included, it seems that evaluation systems need to be rethought so that they are helping teachers do their jobs better. Again, that probably goes back to the teacher voice issue: Has anyone asked them what would be helpful?

Everyone talks about the importance of college and career readiness, yet according to your survey, it’s not really being emphasized.

Right. I think because testing is driving so much in the standards and accountability area, these other things that are viewed as important really aren’t getting the same level of attention.

I don’t know if the solution to that is a little bit more time in the school day or a realignment of priorities. Some think, well, if you can’t read and do math, nothing else matters. But it seems there needs to be a second level of discussion about the balance of skills that we need to have students leave their education with.

When it comes to standards—Common Core or otherwise—a significant percentage of teachers voiced frustration that their district couldn’t settle on a single approach.

On the open-ended comments we saw that a lot. They’d say, “I’ve been here for 10 years and we’ve been through three sets of standards and four assessments.” 

Ultimately, the state boards of education may not change them, but if you are teaching a standard and you have to wonder, “Well, is it even going to be here next year?” it’s hard for you to gear up to create a whole new curriculum or a whole new study unit around something that you feel may go away because the politicians are battling over it.

I’m from Utah, so I’ve been following the debate around the Utah Common Core standards. The governor was very much supportive of them. But he’s in a runoff for the Republican nomination for governor, and the other candidate is further to the right.

So the governor, who has been a steady voice behind the Common Core, is now saying, “Well, maybe we ought to back off from them.”

If you are a teacher you’re wondering, “What does this mean for us? How much should I invest in this? How much should I learn about it? Should I do this professional development session if this is going to go away? Can my time be spent doing something better?”

What is the big message that district leaders can take from this survey?

I would say it’s that teacher voice issue. I think if there can be either a formal or informal mechanism to engage teachers in discussions around school and district policies, it would go a long way.

Some places have strong teacher unions, but I’m not sure that’s the answer. I think individual teachers really have some thoughts and some very good ideas about what can and should be done, and somehow that should be tapped.

When you’ve been doing your job effectively for 20 years and someone comes along and says, “This is what you have to do now” without consulting you, it’s hard to do your job well. One of the teachers said, “We are researchers. We’re on the frontline. We deal with this every single day. People should talk to us.” 

Whether it’s a strategy to improve the school or a question of whether the curriculum is working—they know, but they are not often asked. 

Tim Goral is senior editor.