As the 2010s draw to a close, teachers are left reeling from massive shifts in policy and practice that have affected their everyday work over the past decade, yet many say they’re still cautiously optimistic about the direction the profession is heading.
A broad look at the last 10 years shows that the policy pendulum has swung back and forth. Teachers say they feel as if their jobs have gotten harder, as they grapple with both constantly changing education reforms—including those that affect their pay and job security—and with societal problems that have made their way into the classroom.
“There’s an increasing amount of responsibility and accountability,” said Freeda Pirillis, a long-time teacher who is now the coordinator for an International Baccalaureate program in Chicago. “It’s almost become so burdensome and distracting to doing the job that’s important.”
To ring in 2020, Education Week took a look back at the past decade—the memorable moments, most controversial issues, and the stories that stood out. Here are some highlights:
• 2010 to Now: A Turbulent Decade for Schools
• Most Popular Stories of the Decade: An Education Week Retrospective
• Photos of the Decade: Education Week’s Best
• The Decade in Illustration: The Best From Education Week Opinion
For instance, most states toughened the way they grade their teachers thanks to federal incentives—and then walked back at least some of those teacher-evaluation reforms. The Common Core State Standards were released in 2010, the adoption of which has led to new textbooks and new teaching methods. Several states and districts implemented pay-for-performance policies, which have since largely fallen out of favor.
There are also social pressures that have influenced the day-to-day work of teachers: Teen suicide rates have increased dramatically. Social media and new technology have given new tools for teachers to transform learning, but that’s also led to an increase in cyberbullying and more competition for students’ attention. The opioid epidemic has ravaged school communities.
The two deadliest school shootings—Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—happened over the past decade, leading to intense debates on how to make schools safer. Active-shooter drills have become ubiquitous in schools, and some states have passed controversial laws that allow teachers to carry guns at work.
And, perhaps as a consequence of some of these policy shifts, even getting teachers into classrooms is tough. Fewer people are enrolling in colleges of education, and states have reported persistent shortages, including in perennial areas such as special education. There’s been more of an emphasis on recruiting teachers of color into a predominately white profession, but the growth has been slow.
Even so, teacher voice has increasingly become a priority. States and school districts have formalized more teacher-leadership roles, in which teachers are given the opportunity to be involved in decisionmaking without leaving the classroom. And in the last couple of years, teachers have taken leadership into their own hands—leading strikes and protests across the country, and even running for office.
All of this has been a whirlwind, teachers say. They’re hopeful about what’s next for the profession in the 2020s, but their plates have never been more full.
“A teacher’s job has always been complex,” said Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year who teaches in Johnston, Iowa. “But I think that sometimes, there are opposing forces that teachers are trying to manage: trauma and mental health and caring for our students at the same time we are also being asked to dig into wide-ranging assessments and the way those assessments affect [our] evaluations.”
Indeed, many teachers point to the increased focus on accountability, and the use of standardized test scores to get to that goal, as the biggest shift of the decade—and one that fundamentally changed how they do their jobs.
“I think the change came for teaching when we made the success of the students the teachers’ responsibility instead of helping the students simply succeed,” said Frances Spielhagen, a professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. “Once you make a person’s livelihood dependent on the success of someone she’s trying to help succeed, it changes the focus of what you’re trying to do.”
According to data from the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 15 states required student-growth data in teacher evaluations in 2009. That number skyrocketed after the Obama administration offered financial incentives to states to include student test scores in their evaluation systems. By 2015, there were 43 states that required student-growth measures in their evaluation systems.
But after that year, the financial incentives ended, and the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, stripped the power to determine how states grade their teachers from the U.S. secretary of education. At the same time, states were facing implementation challenges and political backlash for their use of test scores in evaluations.
Now, 34 states require the use of student-growth measures in how they evaluate teachers, and 30 states have walked back one or more of their reforms, NCTQ data show.
Also this decade, nearly all states adopted more demanding academic standards. Teachers say they feel like teaching has become more prescriptive, and there’s less room for creativity. Some say the intense focus on standardized test scores and student data has made it harder to build relationships in the classroom.
Even though ESSA lets states take new approaches to measuring student learning, not all states have taken advantage of the flexibility so far. Teachers say they haven’t felt a substantive shift away from the emphasis on accountability and testing.
Justin Minkel, an Education Week opinion columnist and a veteran 2nd grade teacher at Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Ark., said teaching still feels “more and more rigid.”
“You’d think you get to this extreme and people would push the pendulum the other way, ... but it feels like policy solutions haven’t come,” he said.
A ‘Shot Across the Bow’
Some polls indicate that the public perception of the teaching profession has taken a hit as well. In 2009, 70 percent of Americans said they would like to have their child become a public school teacher. By 2018, just 46 percent said they wanted their child to go into teaching, citing inadequate pay and benefits, student behavior and a lack of discipline, and a perception that teaching is a thankless job.
“This is a real shot across the bow in this country around the teaching profession,” said Joshua Starr, the chief executive officer of PDK International, which conducts the annual poll on Americans’ attitudes toward education. “It’s not seen as an attractive profession.”
This year, the PDK poll found half of teachers said they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession in the last few years. They don’t feel valued and feel like they are unfairly paid.
Even so, teachers are cautiously hopeful that the tide is turning with the Red for Ed movement, in which teachers have protested for higher wages and more school funding.
In February 2018, West Virginia teachers shut down schools across the state as they went on strike to protest changes to the statewide health insurance plan and to demand a pay raise. They were largely successful, and have been credited with lighting the match for the teacher activism that has spread across the nation like wildfire over the past two years.
Since then, teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and South Carolina have held a statewide protest or work stoppage. Teachers in Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles have also gone on strike.
“We had to show the impact of what would happen if we were not there and walk out,” said Michelle Pearson, a middle school social studies teacher near Denver, who has been teaching for nearly 30 years. “If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I never would have expected to see the Red for Ed movement in this context. ... [Now], we either move in that direction and bring our voices to the table, or the changes don’t get made.”
And as teachers have spoken up about their working conditions, they have been viewed with more sympathy by the media and general public—rather than being seen as the reason why kids aren’t succeeding.
To illustrate that point, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, keeps a copy of the Time magazine cover from December 2008 on her desk. It portrays former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee standing in a classroom, holding a broom—ready to sweep out the “bad teachers.” That cover is in stark contrast to the Time covers published in 2018, which featured three teachers sharing their stories of financial distress.
“Teachers, instead of being demonized or disparaged or minimized in the fight on the behalf of kids—at least their message is [now] being lifted up and heard,” Weingarten said in an interview.
Room for Optimism?
Over the past decade, enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by one-third, federal data show, and completion of programs is down as well. Educators say something must be done to stop the bleeding.
“We are at this major inflection point in America with the teaching profession, and the ability to attract, retain, support, and develop educators is something that’s going to require a sea change amongst policymakers and leaders,” Starr said.
Still, educators say there is room for optimism about the profession. For instance, over the past decade, there’s been more of a national conversation about the importance of hiring teachers of color and the need to put equity at the center of education conversations, said José Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City and the founder of EduColor, which is a collective of educators who advocate for racial and social justice in education.
“We’ve moved away from a very narrow vision of what education ought to be to actually being very thoughtful and imaginative of what the school experience can be for so many of our kids,” he said.
And there’s more of an emphasis on career ladders and leadership roles for teachers these days, which some educators hope is bringing more respect to the work of teaching.
Still, Pirillis in Chicago said, “this is a conversation we had 10 years ago, and we’re going into 2020 and continuing to talk about elevating the profession—it feels like we still have a long way to go.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Decade of Change for Teachers