Although they find parts of their jobs immensely rewarding, many teachers feel ignored in education policy discussions and are frustrated with the constantly changing demands on them, a new survey finds.
“Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” released last week by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, is based on online interviews with a nationally representative sample of 3,328 public school teachers conducted late last year.
The report paints a picture of a profession that has become increasingly demanding and discouraging, leaving many teachers who entered the profession for mostly altruistic reasons feeling stressed and discounted.
“This is not a job where people are making huge amounts of money,” Maria Ferguson, the center’s executive director, said during a press call. “Sooner or later, you do have to wonder if this is a breaking point.”
According to the report, about half of teachers would leave the profession as soon as possible if they could get a higher-paying job, and the same percentage believe that the “stress and disappointments” involved in teaching at their school aren’t worth it.
Ferguson said findings like those could shed some light on the current teacher shortages in several parts of the country. Still, 64 percent of respondents said teachers at their school are satisfied with their jobs.
Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that finding should not be overlooked.
“There’s a narrative that is spun everywhere that teachers feel very much put upon and unappreciated and their voices are not heard,” she said, adding that while policymakers would be better off listening more to teachers, “the evidence that they’re deeply unhappy with their jobs has been shown to be blown out of proportion.”
Lack of Voice
Walsh also discounted the narrative of a major teacher shortage facing the nation. Though certain districts and subjects areas don’t have enough high-quality teachers, she contended, overall the country is overproducing educators.
According to the survey, one-third of teachers say constantly changing demands on them are among the most significant challenges they face as teachers. Teachers are not sure how to do a good or effective job when “the target is constantly moving,” Ferguson said.
Jal Mehta, an associate education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an opinion blogger for Education Week, said he found it striking that 46 percent of teachers cited state or district policies that get in the way of teaching as among their most significant challenges. That’s double the percentage of teachers who listed classroom factors, like large class sizes or working with economically disadvantaged students, as among their main challenges.
Teachers, Mehta said, are being encouraged to teach students new skills and to think more critically and deeply. Yet “teachers feel like the policies that are supposed to be helping them do these things are in fact the biggest hindrance,” he said.
The report finds that most teachers feel excluded from policy discussions at the district, state, and national levels. And there’s evidence to suggest teachers might feel even more overlooked than they did a few years ago, when Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation published the results from a similar survey.
The new study is not a direct sequel to that 2013 survey, but included some similar questions.
In the 2013 survey, 69 percent of teachers said their opinions were heard in decisions at the school level, compared with 53 percent now. Similarly, 32 percent of teachers said their voices were considered at the district level, but in the CEP survey, that has dropped to 19 percent. In both surveys, 5 percent or fewer of teachers felt their opinions were heard at the state or national levels.
“We have not moved the ball in a positive direction when it comes to amplifying teacher voices and letting them have a place at the table,” Ferguson said.
Mehta, who is researching the social and emotional aspects of policy implementation in education, said he has found a disconnect between state- and district-level officials and teachers in the classroom.
“I do think that people at state and district levels think about teachers a lot, but thinking about them and strategizing about them is not the same as listening to them and developing respect,” he said.
The report also explores teachers’ thoughts on standardized testing and curricula aligned to meet state standards. A majority of the teachers surveyed said that they spend too much time preparing students for state- and district-mandated tests and that their students spend too much time taking those tests.
More than two-thirds of both math and language arts teachers who received student data from spring 2015 testing said the results caused them to modify their teaching. But about half the teachers of those subjects indicated that they are unsure if their state will retain its current standards and assessments—and 80 percent of that group said the lack of certainty creates instructional challenges.
While many teachers are given curriculum materials aligned to state standards, others say they are making independent decisions in developing or revising their own curricula.
“The autonomy teachers seem to have regarding curriculum could be a double-edged sword,” Ferguson said, noting that the finding raises questions about the continuity and quality of the curricula in schools.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Study Says Teachers Feel Stressed, Discounted