Teaching Profession Opinion

What Do Teachers Want?

By Diane Ravitch — April 10, 2012 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

We heard a lot last month about the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. It showed that teachers across the nation are demoralized and that their job satisfaction has dropped precipitously since 2009. The proportion thinking of leaving teaching has gone from 17 percent to 29 percent, a 70 percent increase in only two years. If this is accurate, it would mean the exit of one million teachers. I hope it is not true.

What has happened in the past two years? Let’s see: Race to the Top promoted the idea that teachers should be evaluated by the test scores of their students; “Waiting for ‘Superman’” portrayed teachers as the singular cause of low student test scores; many states, including Wisconsin, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have passed anti-teacher legislation, reducing or eliminating teachers’ rights to due process and their right to bargain collectively; the Obama administration insists that schools can be “turned around” by firing some or all of the staff. These events have combined to produce a rising tide of public hostility to educators, as well as the unfounded beliefs that schools alone can end poverty and can produce 100 percent proficiency and 100 percent graduation rates if only “failing schools” are closed, “bad” educators are dismissed, and “effective” teachers get bonuses.

Is it any wonder that teachers and principals are demoralized?

Another survey, released about the same time, has not gotten the attention it deserves. This one conducted by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is called Primary Sources: 2012. It contains valuable information about what teachers think.

Among other things, the survey asked teachers what they believe will have the greatest impact on improving academic achievement.

This is what teachers said were the most important factors:

1. Family involvement and support (84 percent said it would have a “very strong impact”);
2. High expectations for all students (71 percent said it would have a “very strong impact”);
3. Fewer students in each class (62 percent said it would have a “very strong impact”);
4. Effective and engaged principals and building-level leaders (57 percent said it would have a “very strong impact”).

These were the factors that teachers said were least important in improving academic achievement:

1. A longer school day (6 percent);
2. Monetary rewards for teachers based on the performance of the entire school (8 percent);
3. Monetary rewards for teachers based on their individual performance (9 percent);
4. A longer school year (10 percent).

Other factors that teachers thought were relatively less important: common assessments across all states (20 percent thought these would have a “very strong impact” on academic achievement); and common standards across all states (29 percent).

Teachers believe that families are crucial for improving student academic performance, but about half of the teachers surveyed say that parent participation in their school has declined, and only about 10 percent said that parent participation had increased.

Sixty-two percent of teachers say that the best measures of student performance are ongoing, formative assessments, the kinds that are integrated into daily instruction and give the teacher immediate feedback. Fifty-five percent of teachers say that class participation is “absolutely essential” as a measure of student performance. Performance on class assignments” is viewed as “absolutely essential” by 47 percent of teachers.

The least valuable measures of student academic achievement, according to teachers, are: tests from textbooks (4 percent); district-required tests (6 percent); state-required standardized tests (7 percent); and final exams (10 percent).

When teachers were asked whether the state standardized tests were “meaningful benchmarks” to measure students’ progress or to compare schools, only 5 percent agreed strongly.

It is interesting that the least useful measures, in the eyes of teachers, are the state-required standardized tests that policymakers use to punish and reward students, teachers, principals, and schools. Only 7 percent of teachers consider them to be “absolutely essential” measures of their students’ academic performance. Yet, to policymakers, this same measure is the only one that matters.

Teachers are quite willing to be evaluated, contrary to popular myth spread by politicians. But they want to be evaluated in a professional manner, by principal observation and review, by formal self-evaluation, by peer observation and review, by their department chair’s observation and review, and by assessment of their content-area knowledge.

When asked about the challenges they face, 62 percent of teachers say they have more students “with behavioral problems that interfere with teaching” than in the past; 56 percent say they have more students living in poverty; 50 percent say they have more English-language learners; 49 percent say they have more students who arrive at school hungry; and 36 percent say they have more students who are homeless. Policymakers tend to dismiss all these social and economic issues as unimportant. Teachers don’t, because they see them every day in real time.

Our policymakers often say that merit pay will lead to the retention of the best teachers. Teachers don’t agree. They say that the factors that are “absolutely essential” to keeping them in the classroom are “supportive leadership” (68 percent); “more family involvement in students’ education” (63 percent); “more help for students who have behavioral or other problems that interfere with learning” (53 percent); and “time for teachers to collaborate” (50 percent).

By contrast, teachers rank the following factors as least important in keeping them in the classroom: “pay tied to teachers’ performance” (4 percent); “in-school teaching mentors/coaches for first 3 years of teaching” (15 percent); “opportunities for additional responsibility and advancement while staying in the classroom” (15 percent).

What do teachers want? They want to spend less time on discipline and more time collaborating with their colleagues and preparing lessons. They want more resources for the students with the greatest needs. They want more training to reach every student in their care.

Unlike the MetLife survey, the Scholastic-Gates survey found that 51 percent of teachers plan to teach “as long as I am able,” even past retirement age, and another 32 percent expect to teach until they reach retirement age. So while MetLife concluded that 29 percent were ready to quit, Scholastic-Gates tallied this group as 16-17 percent.

To the policymakers who seem to think that teaching is an easy job, and to those who write letters to the editor asserting that teachers don’t work hard enough or long enough, consider this: The Scholastic-Gates survey says in its conclusion that “On average, teachers work about 11 hours and 25 minutes a day.” (Although on Page 13 of the report, the survey says that “teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, three hours and 20 minutes beyond the average required work day in public schools nationwide.”) Whether it is one or the other doesn’t really matter. This is a demanding job that requires enormous dedication and gets inadequate support from families, from policymakers, from elected officials, and from the public.

The teacher comments that accompany each page of the report are illuminating. One teacher says, “In my school, we are feeding the children, clothing the children, and keeping many of them from 7:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m.” Another says, “I am a general education teacher, but at least 50 percent of my class each year has special needs. At least 25 percent of these students have extreme behavior problems which interfere with teaching the other students to learn.”

The goal of the survey “is to place teachers’ voices at the center of the conversation on education reform by sharing their thoughts and opinions with the public, the media, and education leaders.” Is anyone listening?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.