School & District Management Opinion

John Thompson: Gallup Poll Finds Majority of Teachers “Not Engaged”

By Anthony Cody — April 16, 2014 4 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Gallup has produced decades of research on the characteristics of high-performing educators, students and schools. Gallup explains that its studies have produced “unparalleled expertise on the ‘human’ elements” of school improvement, but “these elements are often overlooked in the effort to ‘fix’ America’s education system.”

Gallup’s latest study found that 56% of teachers polled are “not engaged.” They may be satisfied with their jobs, but they are not emotionally connected to their schools. Another 13% are “actively disengaged.” While those numbers are consistent with the engagement and disengagement levels of most American workers, they are very disturbing for a profession that seeks to nurture engagement in young people with learning and developing the skills necessary for well-rounded fulfilling lives.

Moreover, 46% of teachers report high daily stress. That is nearly identical as the stress reported by physicians and nurses.

The survey found that teachers are dead last among occupational groups in terms of their opinions being heard at work. That fosters teachers’ feelings of isolation and disempowerment. Gallup concludes that the “increased use of high-stakes testing at the state and district levels may be exacerbating this problem by limiting teachers’ control over their own work.”

These findings also suggest the approach school reformers should have adopted. The first step in improving schools, Gallup finds, is asking teachers about curriculum, pedagogy, and other issues, and then incorporating their feedback into the decision-making process. We should have partnered the most engaged administrators and teachers with new teachers.

Yes, as reformers often assert, we should “professionalize” teaching, raising hiring standards. But, Gallup emphasizes the need to improve working conditions, grant teachers greater (not less) autonomy, and professional development. Otherwise, how do schools attract and retain teaching talent?

Gallup documents the three sets of characteristics of effective teaching and learning - an achievement drive, classroom structure and planning, and strong student and parent relationships. It also argues that test-driven accountability has the focus backwards. Data-driven reform concentrates on remediating weaknesses. The key to school improvement, however, is building on the strengths of students and the adults who nurture them.

Gallup’s student surveys also document the role of children’s hope, engagement, and well-being in achieving success at school. Teachers and schools have the greatest influence on engagement. The key to fostering success is focusing on students’ emotional engagement. (emphasis is Gallup’s)

The key points in “The State of America’s Schools” are not new. It notes that some of its findings document patterns dating back to the 1920s. Even if market-driven reformers lacked the nuanced wisdom of Gallup Education, the thrust of its recommended approach should have been apparent before corporate reformers headed down the doomed path of standardization, and rewards and punishment.

On the other hand, the survey also documents a pattern that I had not noticed. It found that “teachers with less than one year of experience on the job are the most engaged, at 35%. That number drops significantly to 28% among teachers on the job for three to five years.” Afterwards, the engagement rate returns to 32%.

What is it that these dedicated new teachers encounter that reduces their engagement by 1/5th in the first few years? What factors - in addition to standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy - are so powerful and obvious to new teachers that they take the steam out of dynamic young talent? Why do reformers remain so blind to the problems that they clearly are making worse?

I have long believed that we are sending the wrong message to teachers when we allow them to be indoctrinated into the mindset of doing “whatever it takes” to overcome out-of-school factors that undermine success in the classroom. The better approach would be to teach young teachers how to roll with the punches, in order to remain fully committed to students over the long haul. Especially in the inner city, I’ve long argued, teachers need the resilience of emergency room doctors.

On the other hand, if we heeded the wisdom of “The State of America’s Schools,” couldn’t we build schools and a profession that does not eat its young and burn out veteran teachers? Given the failure of test-driven reform, will we soon have an opportunity to improve schools in more promising ways? Will the next reform era be based on Gallup’s call for building schools that foster student and teacher engagement?

What do you think?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.