School & District Management

Study Disputes Conventional Wisdom on NCLB’s Impact on Teacher Morale

By Holly Yettick — June 11, 2014 4 min read
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This post originally appeared on the Inside School Research blog.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has not necessarily been the teacher’s pet of education policies. If you follow education news, you’ve probably heard something about educators’ dissatisfaction with the latest incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But the results of a study published Tuesday in the peer-refereed journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis suggests that the law has had a limited influence on teachers’ perceptions of their jobs.

“Surprisingly, we found positive trends in many work environment measures, and in job satisfaction and commitment during the time coinciding with NCLB’s implementation, with only modest evidence that NCLB itself had an impact,” Jason A. Grissom said in a news release by the American Educational Research Association, which publishes Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Grissom is an assistant professor of public policy and education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and the study’s lead author.

Few previous academic studies have examined the association between NCLB and teacher satisfaction. Those that do exist have generated mixed results, but have generally suggested that teachers grew more disenchanted with their jobs after the law took effect.

For this study, researchers analyzed National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Surveys of 140,000 teachers during four different school years. The surveys were administered both prior to the implementation of NCLB (1993-94 and1999-2000) and afterwards (2003-04 and 2007-08). This permitted the authors to track teachers’ perceptions over time. The authors also considered several factors that might be expected to exert different types of influences. For instance, they compared states with stronger and weaker accountability systems. They considered whether states had already implemented their own accountability systems before NCLB took effect. Because high-poverty schools are more likely to receive funds attached to NCLB, they are also more likely to face sanctions as a result of the law, especially since they tend to have higher percentages of low-achieving students. So the researchers also considered the student poverty rates of the teachers’ schools.

In the end, none of it really mattered. Teachers’ perceptions of their jobs were similar, regardless of the accountability systems adopted by their states or the poverty rates of their schools.

Over time, there were some changes in teacher attitudes and perceptions but not all of them were bad. The authors did find evidence that teacher perceptions of cooperation weakened in the wake of the passage of the law. The amount of time that teachers reported working each week also increased by about seven hours between 1994 and 2008. However, much of that increase occurred prior to 2003. Further, the increase was larger in states that already had accountability systems in place when NCLB took effect. This raises questions about whether NCLB can be credited or blamed for the longer work weeks.

On the positive side, teachers reported higher levels of classroom autonomy after the passage of the law. They said they felt more supported by peers, administrators, and parents. Overall, their job satisfaction increased. They said they were more committed to the teaching profession.

Just because teachers are still satisfied with their jobs, it does not mean they are unconcerned with the impacts of NCLB, according to Donna Harris-Aikens, the director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association or NEA, which is the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

“Most teachers express overall satisfaction with teaching because of their commitment to students,” she said. “But the growing concern and dissatisfaction with standardized testing and its consequences are unmistakable. For over a decade, NEA members, parents, and community members have asked for relief from the toxic testing culture NCLB created and from the high-stakes decisions tied to those tests...After spending more and more time on test preparation rather than teaching, after seeing curriculum narrowed rather than expanded in response to low test scores, teachers and their students feel the negative impact of NCLB every day.”

However, the study authors said that their findings suggested a disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

“Simply stated, our results do not support media accounts..., academic reports...,or policy rhetoric more generally that portray NCLB as undermining teacher morale and intent to remain in the profession,” they write.

Like any study, this one had methodological limitations. For example, the authors noted that the survey they used is not administered every year and that some of the categories and questions have changed over time. It is possible that the authors might have reached different conclusions if they had used indicators other than state accountability systems and school poverty rates to assess the differential impacts of the law. It is also possible that teachers’ attitudes have further evolved since 2008, especially given the alterations to the law’s accountability provisions that have been permitted by U.S. Department of Education waivers granted since 2012 to 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

However, the study’s authors note that, in order to understand the impact of the waivers, it is first necessary to tease out the impacts of the original law, which is long overdue for reauthorization. “For that reason, the results reported in this article remain relevant and important to recent changes in NCLB implementation and help inform ongoing conversations about future reform as part of a potential reauthorization,” they conclude.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.