Published Online: February 25, 2009

Report: Teachers See Progress Over Past 25 Years

Teachers’ views on their profession have become markedly more positive over the past quarter century, at least partially validating the widespread school-improvement efforts of the period, concludes a retrospective survey report released this week by MetLife Inc.

“The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Past, Present, and Future” is the financial company’s 25th annual survey of educators. The series was begun in 1984, one year after the catalytic “A Nation at Risk” report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, as a way of capturing teachers’ unique and sometimes overlooked perspectives on the conditions in schools and the impact of reform initiatives. (The MetLife Foundation also provides funding to teachermagazine.org.)

The current report, based in part on a national survey of 1,000 teachers conducted by Harris Interactive, offers a composite look at how those perspectives have changed over the last two and a half decades.

For the most part, according to the report, the trend lines are encouraging, even surprising in some cases. The percentage of teachers saying that they are "very satisfied" with their careers has increased from 40 in 1984 to 62 in 2008, while more teachers today (66 percent) feel respected by society than did their counterparts in 1984 (47 percent).

Perhaps even more provocatively, the percentage of teachers agreeing that they can earn a “decent salary” has nearly doubled since 1984, to 66 percent, and far more teachers today (75 percent, compared with 45 percent in 1984) say they would recommend a career in teaching to a young person.

In addition, two thirds of today’s teachers affirm that they were well-prepared for the profession, compared with 46 percent in 1984. Teachers also feel better equipped today than in past years when it comes to addressing student-learning challenges such as poverty, limited English language proficiency, and lack of parental support, according to the report.

The number of teachers who rate the academic standards in their school as excellent, meanwhile, has doubled from 26 percent in 1984 to 53 percent today, and 89 percent of teachers say their school’s curriculum is excellent or good, compared with 81 percent in 1984.

Even regarding the availability of materials and supplies in schools—a notoriously sore subject among teachers—the numbers have improved: The percentage of teachers rating their access to such resources as excellent, while still not reaching a majority, has doubled to 44 percent since 1984.

“I was surprised at how positive the report is,” Mary Brabeck, dean at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, Human Development at New York University, said during a Feb. 25 panel discussion in Washington organized by MetLife.

She added that the findings could bring a “lot of hope” to educators, who often hear only the bad news about their profession.

Ongoing and Mounting Challenges

Despite the generally positive trajectory of teachers’ responses over the years, however, MetLife’s data does also underscore persistent disparities among schools and mounting challenges facing the country’s public education system.

For example, teachers in urban and secondary schools, especially those with high concentrations of low-income students, are significantly less likely to rate the academic standards in their schools as excellent, according to the report. Urban teachers are also considerably less positive than their suburban counterparts on the availability of teaching materials in their schools and the degree of parental support their students receive.

Pointing to significant demographic shifts, meanwhile, the percentage of teachers responding that limited English proficiency hinders learning for a quarter or more of their students has doubled since 1992, from 11 to 22 percent, with the level reaching 30 percent for urban teachers. In addition, nearly half of today’s teachers (up from 41 percent in 1992) say that poverty limits the day-to-day capabilities of at least a quarter of their students.

The number of teachers saying that students’ learning abilities in their classes are so varied that they can’t teach effectively has also jumped, according to the report, from 39 percent in 1988 to 43 percent today.

Fewer than half of teachers (48 percent), meanwhile, agree that the now-pervasive standardized tests are an effective way to monitor student performance, down from 61 percent in 1984.

The teachers' responses also reveal some potentially major cracks in the overall quality of U.S. students’ education. While the majority of teachers say their students’ skills in reading, writing, and math are excellent or good, for example, significantly smaller percentages of secondary school teachers than elementary-level teacher feel that way. In an increasingly global economy, further, nearly two-thirds of teachers rate their students as only fair or poor in their knowledge of other nations and cultures, and more than half rate their students as fair or poor in foreign languages.

The report also highlights apparent communication problems between teachers and principals and discrepancies in the groups’ views on a number of issues, including school-disciplinary policies, parent-involvement levels, and the use of teachers’ time.

Digital Changes

Casting its view forward, the MetLife survey also touches on a number of pressing instructional issues that were not even on the radar in 1984, particularly involving the potential of new technologies to expand teachers’ resources and capabilities.

In general, the report finds, 90 percent of teachers agree that technology improves their instruction. About half of teachers now use computer software to track data on student progress, and 62 percent use the Internet at least once a week to find teaching resources. Nearly 40 percent have taken an online course for professional credit or a degree program.

However, the report cautions that most teachers appear not to have made use of the interactive potential of the Web for professional purposes. Fully 72 percent of teachers say they have never read or written a blog on teaching, and only 3 in 10 report having communicated online (by e-mail or instant messaging, for example) with a teacher outside their district.

Only a “small minority” of teachers—15 percent—have made use of an online community or social-networking site related to education, the report notes.

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