A classroom in St. Paul, Minnesota. (AP Photo/ Jim Mone)
It is difficult to generalize about the opinions of any group as large and diverse as public school teachers, of which there are about 3.2 million. But it can’t be good news that a survey of teachers released in March by MetLife found the lowest job satisfaction numbers since 1989, with just 44 percent of respondents describing themselves as “very satisfied” with their classroom careers, down from 59 percent in 2009 and 62 percent in 2008. According to MetLife, nearly a third of public school teachers are considering leaving their jobs.
Some will cry “good riddance.” The contention that large numbers of teachers lack ambition and are insufficiently committed to raising student achievement—and should therefore be replaced—is common among politicians and has helped to fuel the standards and accountability school reform movement.
But a review of the best evidence on teachers’ sentiments shows that educators are not unhappy because they resent the new emphasis on teacher evaluations, a key element of President Obama’s Race to the Top program; in fact, according to a separate survey of 10,000 public school teachers from Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, the majority support using measures of student learning to assess teachers, and the mean number of years teachers believe they should devote to the classroom before being assessed for tenure is 5.4, a significant increase from the current national average of 3.1 years.
But polling shows teachers are depressed by the increasing reliance on standardized tests to measure student learning—the “high stakes” testing regime that the standards and accountability movement has put in place across the country and that Race to the Top has reinforced in some states and districts. Teachers are also concerned that growing numbers of parents are not able to play an active role in their children’s education, and they are angry about the climate of austerity that has invaded the nation’s schools, with state and local budget cuts threatening key programs that help students learn and overcome the disadvantages of poverty.
The MetLife poll found large majorities of teachers reporting budget cuts, teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and more students than ever experiencing behavioral challenges, inadequate healthcare and family poverty over the past year. Teachers are not imagining these problems. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, thirty-seven states have cut education expenditures this school year, and, given the depletion of the property taxes that fund most school programs, districts can’t make up the difference on their own.
The horror stories are everywhere. This school year 292 districts are on a four-day school week. In California nearly half of schools have cut art, music and drama programs since the recession, and the same number have laid off school psychologists, nurses or guidance counselors. In Brooklyn a chess club at a high-poverty middle school won the National High School Chess Championships in April; as it turns out, it is at risk of having its funding cut. Across New York City, 700 school support staff, who often work with special-needs kids, have been laid off.
There is a mantra in education reform: “money doesn’t matter.” It is usually backed by citing data showing that scores on the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained essentially flat since the 1970s, even though state education spending grew. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, a fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institute, has been making this argument for three decades in academic papers, op-eds and courtrooms, where he is often called to testify in defense of unequal school funding schemes in which rich towns receive disproportionate state aid compared with their high-poverty peers.
But Hanushek’s argument has been discredited. While not every dollar a school spends directly improves academic outcomes, a new report from Rutgers school-finance expert Bruce Baker finds certain kinds of money very much do matter: extra funding for higher teacher salaries and more equitable distribution of resources between rich and poor districts, for example, are correlated with higher student achievement, especially for the neediest kids. After reviewing the body of research on school finance, Denver Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in December that Colorado’s school funding system violates the state’s constitutional promise of “uniform” educational opportunity for all children. During the trial, Hanushek testified on behalf of the state. But Rappaport noted in her ruling that “Dr. Hanushek’s analysis…defies logic and is statistically flawed.”
It is irksome to have to cite so much evidence to support what teachers and parents know just from looking at local schools: that a depletion of financial resources can take a serious toll. And make no mistake—in this unstable climate, children will be hurt if large numbers of frustrated teachers quit the classroom. A new paper by researchers at the University of Michigan, Stanford and the University of Virginia found that high teacher turnover in elementary schools has a negative effect on students’ math and English achievement, regardless of whether the teachers who leave are considered especially good at their jobs. Evidence like this has left some education reformers worried that they have talked too much about removing bad teachers from the classroom and not enough about respecting the good ones and keeping them there. In February the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of teachers in Scottsdale, Arizona, to send the message that their “voices matter” and that the foundation “honors” teachers’ “insight and impact.” Gates also broke from some of his allies in the reform movement, like New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, to decry the public release of teachers’ value-added ratings, which are based on their students’ standardized test scores and have high error rates.
The Obama administration is also trying to do a better job of reaching out to teachers. Its new teacher-quality proposal is nicknamed the Respect Program, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched the Respect Project to involve more teachers in conversations about education policy-making.
Ultimately, though, these feel-good measures can’t make up for a basic lack of resources in many schools. Policy-makers from both parties have asked teachers to support stricter checks on their autonomy, even though they’ve cut the professional development and support services that help teachers teach. It is remarkable that teachers don’t protest more—but that probably has to do with how busy most of them are doing one of the toughest jobs in America.