Published Online: November 7, 2012

Surveys Gauge Generational Divide in Teaching

Newer teachers are more likely than their veteran counterparts to support such controversial education policy changes as using student growth in teacher evaluations, differentiating pay based on performance, and decreasing tenure protections, according to the findings from two recent national surveys.

Last month, the Boston-based teacher-policy organization Teach Plus released a report highlighting differences in attitudes between what it calls "new majority" teachers—defined as those with 10 or fewer years of experience, who now make up more than 50 percent of the teaching force—and "veterans" with 11 or more years of experience. Similarly, in July, the Washington-based research group Education Sector released a report that includes a comparison of the attitudes of teaching "newcomers," which it defines as having fewer than five years of teaching experience, and "veterans," who have more than 20 years of experience.

Both reports explore teachers’ perspectives on the rapidly changing and ever-contentious area of teacher evaluation. According to the Teach Plus report, "Great Expectations: Teachers' Views on Elevating the Teaching Profession," which was based on an online survey of some 1,015 self-selected teachers, 71 percent of the so-called new-majority teachers responded that student growth should be part of their evaluations, compared with 41 percent of veterans. Asked whether student growth should be 20 percent or more of teacher evaluations, 51 percent of new-majority teachers were in support, compared with 23 percent of veterans.

Education Sector's "Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession," based on a random sample of 1,100 K-12 public school teachers, found a only a slight difference in opinions on evaluations, with 56 percent of newcomers and 50 percent of veterans saying it's an "excellent or good idea" to measure teacher effectiveness using student-growth models. It also found that the two groups have "common resistance" to paying teachers based on test scores. The report states that teachers overall "still don't trust test scores," pointing out that 37 percent of newcomers and 32 percent of veterans indicated that they were "open to rewarding teachers whose students routinely score higher on standardized tests."

However, the Education Sector survey found that newcomers are significantly more supportive of increasing pay for "teachers who consistently receive outstanding evaluations by their principals." Seventy-four percent of newcomers and only 49 percent of veterans supported this idea.

The Teach Plus survey found that most teachers are not in favor of instituting a "performance-based compensation system with much higher starting and top salaries." But it also found a difference between new teachers’ and veterans’ views on this issue, with 42 percent of new teachers supporting performance pay, as compared to just 15 percent of veteran teachers

The Teach Plus report chalks up such philosophical differences to the timing of when teachers entered the profession. For those who came into teaching over the past decade, "the achievement gap was the central problem around which their pre-service training was built," the report states. "For many, the achievement gap is what motivates their participation in the profession. For these teachers, data has always been a necessary tool of the trade."

Richard M. Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, contended that veterans have good reason to be wary of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession. This is "not a new issue," he said. "[Schools] may have new tools now—they're using student scores—but there have been hundreds of examples that have failed. After you've been in it for a while, you've seen many examples of bad reforms come down the pike."

Ingersoll, the author of a number of studies on teacher-workforce trends, also pointed to possible limitations in the surveys. The Teach Plus survey puts teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience in its "new majority" category. And yet, Ingersoll noted, the "five to six-year point is a real crux—after that turnover dramatically levels off. So there could be some real differences between a seven-year veteran and a three-year veteran." The Education Sector survey does not include the perspectives of a significant swath of the profession—teachers with five to 20 years experience—in its comparisons.

A 'Greening' Profession

The two surveys also touch on teacher opinions about tenure as well, though from different angles. According to Education Sector, 75 percent of veterans and 91 percent of newcomers support unions taking a role in simplifying the process for removing ineffective teachers (rather than leaving such changes to districts and administrators). Overall, the report says, teachers are "ready and willing to make changes to tenure-related dismissal policies. The report also notes that 30 percent of newcomers and 17 percent of veterans agreed that teachers would have more prestige if collective bargaining and lifetime tenure were eliminated.

The Teach Plus report identifies an even more significant generational divide in attitudes on tenure, with 60 percent of new-majority teachers indicating "interest in changing compensation and tenure system[s]," compared with just 20 percent of veterans. In addition, 41 percent of new-majority teachers said they'd be open to replacing pensions with 401k or defined-contribution plans if it meant higher take-home pay, compared with 22 percent of veterans.

Ingersoll, who was not involved in either survey, said that generational differences in the teaching profession on issues like tenure are not surprising. His research has shown that the teaching force is "greening," or becoming less experienced, and that in 2008 there were more first-year teachers than any other experience group. In addition, he said, nearly half of all new teachers leave within the first five years on the job. Those trends mean that many "new" teachers are not yet—and may never be—affected by tenure-related policies, and it follows then that they'd be more amenable to change. "There are an increasing number of teachers thinking this isn't going be my career," said Ingersoll.

The greening trend is likely to continue in teaching, noted Ingersoll. Based on these attitudinal surveys, that could mean an increase in the percentage of teachers who are supportive of policies to make evaluation and tenure systems more stringent. The Education Sector report indicates that this trend could put pressure on union groups to go past the "bread and butter" basics of contracts, salary, and benefits and work to "advance dramatic reforms to the teaching profession."

But Ingersoll is not convinced an overall shift in attitudes will occur.

"Beginners are often appalled at the cynicism of veterans," he said, but after teaching for a while, "they might say, 'Gosh, I'm becoming that way, too. How naïve I was.' … It's sticker shock and a growth pattern. There's nothing new about that."

It's even possible that these sorts of generational conflicts "could be true for every occupation," he said. "Twenty-year lawyers and new lawyers see the world through different lenses."

But the more interesting challenge, he said, "would be to follow some of those people [over time] and see if their attitudes change."

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