Published Online: April 21, 2011

Report: Gen Y Teachers Seek Feedback, Opportunities for Growth

Public school teachers from Generation Y—born between 1977 and 1995—tend to value frequent feedback on their effectiveness, opportunities to collaborate with and observe other teachers, and differentiated pay based on performance, according to a new study on school workplaces.

However, despite their support for differentiated pay, the study says, Gen-Yers on the whole are less in favor of using students' standardized test scores to measure teacher performance than their veteran counterparts.

The report, entitled "Workplaces That Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights From Generation Y Teachers," was compiled by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Institutes for Research. It is based on an analysis of focus groups, case studies of AFT members, and existing national teacher surveys.

Susan Moore Johnson, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the findings are consistent with what she has learned about new teachers in her research over the last decade. "We've certainly found that in order to remain in the classroom, teachers need to feel confident they are being effective….[T]hey want feedback and other models to consider and expert teachers to observe."

Johnson, who is the director of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, an ongoing research initiative that looks at issues related to supporting and retaining effective public school teachers, also agrees that young teachers today tend to want to collaborate more with other educators. "Teachers that were hired in the late 60s, early 70s were never expected to work closely with colleagues. They were expected to be congenial but not collaborative," said Johnson. But "new teachers have been schooled on teamwork and group projects. They're not accustomed to working in isolation." That's in part a result of increased schoolwide accountability, she said.

Further Probing Needed

Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Boston-based Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to keep effective early career teachers in the classroom by giving them leadership opportunities, said the general themes in the report are "spot on." But Coggins, who served on the study's advisory review panel, thought some of the details necessitated further probing.

For instance, Coggins said the report overemphasizes young teachers' desire for collaboration, "without any nod to the need for individual recognition." Based on her experiences working with teachers in five cities, teachers want a strong, collaborative community but they also "care about feeling special," she said. In addition, Coggins believes the study fails to emphasize that young teachers don't want to collaborate with just anyone—they want to collaborate with "high-performing colleagues."

Jane Coggshall, a senior research and policy analyst at AIR who co-authored the study, said the report touched on this, mentioning teachers who expressed frustration that their colleagues weren't pulling their weight.

The analysis also found that Gen Y teachers are "very skeptical" about using standardized achievement tests in teacher evaluations. Coggins said that when, in a separate survey, Teach Plus asked the question differently—whether teachers agreed with the statement that "growth and student learning" should be part of an evaluation—88 percent of teachers surveyed responded yes.

Coggins suggested that skepticism about standardized test scores in particular was the result of young teachers being "sophisticated consumers of assessments." Having used standardized tests since the beginning of their careers, Gen Y teachers are able to be more critical and thoughtful about how to improve them, she said.

Coggshall agreed this was a plausible explanation. But she added that early career teachers also often "feel much more uncertain about their practice," which might contribute to skepticism about being judged by test scores.

The study's co-author also emphasized that the findings were not meant to imply that Gen Y teachers are not data-driven. In fact, Coggshall said, Gen Yers are "very practical" and eager for data that is meaningful and will help them become more effective.

Teachers Plan to Stay in the Field

The study also states, in a somewhat surprising finding, that more Gen Y teachers than those in the previous generation see themselves staying in the profession for the long haul. According to the report, a 2009 nationwide survey found that more than half of Gen Y teachers "plan to make teaching a 'lifelong career,' and most of the rest indicated that they wanted a career in the field of education." And another survey found that "young teachers who were 21 to 31 in 1999-2000 (the same age Gen Y teachers were in 2007-2008) were actually less likely to say they intended 'stay in teaching for as long as I am able' than Gen Y teachers are today."

The intention to stay in the field could be a reflection of the economic times, said Johnson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, Coggshall noted that one of the two surveys about retention was conducted in 2007, before the economic downturn began.

Johnson also pointed out that remaining in education can mean a variety of things. "It might be becoming a principal, a lead teacher, starting a charter school, or working in education policy." Teachers these days see more options for extending their roles inside and outside the classroom, she said.

According to Coggshall, AIR is "always advocating for new roles for teachers and career advancement opportunities" and would welcome that as a contributing factor in teacher retention.

In all, these findings and others like them are worthy of "serious attention," said Johnson. "Even though teachers talk about commitment over time, I'm not convinced they will remain in teaching if they don’t get the kind of frequent feedback, collaborative work, differentiated roles and rewards, and fair but serious evaluations that this study highlights."

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