Recognizing the importance of teacher quality in transforming underperforming schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made retaining and rewarding effective teachers a cornerstone of his school reform agenda. But a recent report that suggests 40 percent of U.S. teachers are disheartened with their profession indicates how difficult these challenges will be.
The report is based on a nationwide study, "Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today," and was conducted by Public Agenda, a New York City-based nonprofit research organization, and by Learning Point Associates, a nonprofit education research and consulting organization based in Chicago, Ill., in partnership with Education Week.
Underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, the study is based on a nationally representative phone and online survey of about 900 teachers throughout the United States between April 16 and June 22, preceded by six focus groups. The survey was intended to provide a comprehensive look at how teachers view their profession, why they entered teaching, the atmosphere and leadership in their schools, the problems they face, and their ideas for reform.
"This snapshot of America’s four million K-12 teachers comes as economic stimulus dollars … are focused on dramatically improving student learning and ensuring that effective teachers are more equitably distributed among all schools," said Sabrina Laine, chief program officer of Learning Point Associates. "Additionally, as Congress considers reauthorization of [the No Child Left Behind Act], it is even more critical to have a better understanding of what motivates teachers to excel in the classroom and what support they need to sustain high levels of effectiveness with all students."
What the survey found was disheartening in itself: 40 percent of teachers reportedly are disheartened, 37 percent are merely content, and only 23 percent of teachers are idealists.
The survey said it divided teachers into these three categories based on their common responses.
Disheartened teachers are more likely to give their principals poor ratings for supporting them as teachers, and they express concerns about working conditions, bad student behavior, and poorly focused testing. These teachers are twice as likely as other teachers to agree strongly with the view that teaching is "so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out." More than half teach in low-income schools, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Eighty-seven percent of these teachers are 33 or older.
Contented teachers are more likely to report excellent working conditions, be experienced in their profession, work in middle or higher-income schools, and believe their students’ test scores have increased a lot because of their teaching. These teachers are more likely to say that their schools are "orderly, safe, and respectful." Also, a majority of these teachers hold a graduate degree. Sixty-three percent strongly agree with the statement, "teaching is exactly what I wanted," which is supported by the fact that 94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years.
Idealist teachers are more likely to say they became teachers to help disadvantaged students and that good teachers can lead all students to learn–even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents. Fifty-four percent strongly agree that all of their students, "given the right support, can go to college." More than half of these teachers are 32 years old or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that, although they intend to stay in education, they plan to leave classroom teaching in the future for other jobs in education.
Although the researchers caution that teachers labeled as "idealists" are not necessarily more effective than their colleagues, half of the respondents in this group believe their students’ test scores have increased significantly as a result of their teaching–a higher percentage than the other teachers in the survey.
In short, the survey suggests that the majority of U.S. educators who are disheartened with their work serve in low-income schools with little administrative support, while those who are idealists usually serve in prosperous districts and teach at lower grade levels. Unfortunately, teachers who are idealists ultimately are looking for jobs outside the classroom.
Teachers’ faith in their ability to make a difference with their students varied notably by group. A 22 percentage-point differential separated the idealists and the disheartened (88 percent to 66 percent) in their faith that good teachers can make a difference in student learning. Seventy-five percent of idealists strongly agree that teachers shape student effort, whereas only 50 percent of the disheartened believe that.
In his school reform agenda, Duncan believes in offering incentives for the best teachers and principals to serve in high-need or underserved schools and districts. Duncan also would like to see the 2,000 lowest-performing high schools that account for 50 percent of the country’s high school dropouts change. Some of the reforms he’d like to see include extending the school day, week, and year; providing more after-school opportunities for students; and replacing ineffective teachers with teachers who have high expectations for their students.
According to the group labeled "disheartened" in the survey, higher teacher pay and removing students with severe behavioral problems from the classroom would help improve teaching. However, according to idealists, smaller class sizes would best help improve teaching, and this group made little mention of higher pay or student behavioral problems.
Andrew Yarrow, vice president of Public Agenda, says the survey data have important implications and raise many questions for education leaders.
"Are the idealists the best prospects for high-need schools and for reinvigorating the profession, and what do school leaders need to do to retain them in the field? Given the idealists’ passion for improving their students’ lives, how can administrators ensure that they have the skills and support to fulfill that goal? More than a third of idealists voiced a desire to move eventually into other jobs in education. How does the field respond to those aspirations?" asked Yarrow.
The survey raises many questions with respect to the disheartened group as well.
"Some may be ill-fitted to the job and ready to move on," said Yarrow, "but how should the field encourage and support their transition? Others may be good teachers trapped in dysfunctional schools and, in the right environment, might change their views and become idealists. While those teachers may be helping their students despite the teachers’ bleak outlook, the researchers point out that it would be hard to believe that those disheartened teachers are as effective as they could be, given their own reports about their situation."
Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda and director of its Education Insights division, noted that an earlier study with superintendents and principals showed that administrators can fall into two categories: "Copers," whose main focus is successfully completing the work of each day, and "Transformers," who aim to change the schools they manage.
"One key question from this study is the degree to which the most idealistic teachers could be Transformers, effectively helping struggling students become eager and accomplished learners," said Johnson. "Then there are questions about the disheartened teachers, who generally fall into the coping category. Could good school leadership and better support re-energize them, or would it be better for some portion of them and their students if they found another line of work?"
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