The status of the teaching profession is at its lowest in five decades, new research suggests, which its authors say is “cause for national concern.”
In a new paper published Tuesday, researchers at Brown University and the University at Albany compiled and analyzed decades’ worth of national data from more than a dozen sources about factors like teachers’ morale, the perceived prestige of the profession, and interest in entering the field, to create an annual profile of the profession between 1970 and 2022.
What they found is sobering. It suggests that the pandemic has only added fuel to a job that’s steadily declined in prestige and attractiveness for more than a decade.
“When you look at the data that we have, it’s hard to see us in a spot anywhere else other than a really critical tipping point in public education,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown and co-author of the report.
Media scrutiny of teacher shortages and burnout during the pandemic has boomed. But Kraft and his co-author, Melissa Arnold Lyon, an assistant professor of public policy at Albany, found that educators’ satisfaction has been dipping since about 2010, evidence of more structural problems in the profession, Kraft said.
The pandemic just exacerbated an existing wound.
“I see this moment as one where we are concerned because of the effect of the pandemic, but if you misinterpret, the problem is only temporary related to that challenge. I think we’re going to fail to see the poor structural challenges that have eroded the status over the last decade, and may continue to do so unless we think seriously about what has caused that decline and how to reverse it,” Kraft said.
Multiple data sources confirm the findings
For the study, the researchers pulled from dozens of data sources—from federal databases, to longstanding annual surveys, to more-recent nationally representative polls—and analyzed them to look for patterns over time. Among their key takeaways, Kraft and Lyon found:
- Teachers’ job satisfaction is at its lowest level in 50 years, with 42 percent of educators saying the stress of their job is worth it, compared to 81 percent in the 1970s.
- Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshman is at its lowest point in the last 50 years, dropping 50 percent since the 1990s and 38 percent since 2010.
- The number of new entrants into teaching has decreased by one-third over the past decade, with the number of newly licensed teachers dropping from 320,000 in 2006 to 215,000 in 2020. In 2006, the number of newly licensed teachers made up 22 percent of total college graduates, compared to 2020, when they made up 11 percent of college graduates.
- The public’s perception of the teaching profession has soured in recent years, with just 59 percent of respondents to a nationally representative survey saying the job has at least “considerable prestige” this year, compared to 78 percent of respondents in 1998.
The issues are complex, and the drops in satisfaction probably aren’t attributable to one factor. Rather, it’s likely a combination of several things, including declining wages, a competitive outside labor market, the decreasing influence of teachers’ unions, a rise in school shootings, strenuous reform efforts, and low education funding levels, the paper says.
Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College and professor of political science at Columbia University, said the findings are important because teachers are the key to ensuring students are educated.
“We have a whole bunch of policies that come and go, but are linked by the fact that, ultimately, it’s teachers who are the ones who deliver those policies in classrooms,” Henig said. “So, if in fact the working conditions for teachers are declining, so that teachers are becoming not just less happy but less able to do a good job, then that has implications.”
History can teach us lessons about how to rebound
While the findings should be taken seriously, Kraft said, there is good news: The country saw a similarly strained teaching profession in the 1970s and rebounded. There’s historical evidence the country can make a comeback.
In the ‘70s, the reversal started with higher salaries. At the time, rising inflation and stagnant nominal wages led to a decline in real wages of 13 precent across the decade. Prominent reports—like 1983’s “A Nation at Risk"—that outlined concerns about the state of public education spurred a raise in the average teacher salary by about 20 percent by 1990, which corresponded with a rise in job satisfaction, Kraft and Lyon wrote.
So, it is reasonable to believe, the researchers concluded, that bolstering pay now could equal happier teachers and make the job more attractive.
They also theorized many teachers have felt they’ve had less professional autonomy in the last few decades. Teachers were under more scrutiny as school accountability policies took hold in the early 2000s. That scrutiny compounded especially in the mid-2010s, as the Obama administration and philanthropies pushed teacher-evaluation and performance-pay programs. More recently, teachers have been caught in the crosshairs of political debates about classroom discussion of gender identity and sexuality.
Henig said those public and often very tense and divisive debates have undercut the longstanding notion that educators are allies to children’s learning, rather than barriers.
That has “given teachers reasonably good reason to feel like they’re underappreciated and under attack,” he said, though he added there are some community members who appreciate teachers now more than ever.
But to move forward, the researchers suggested, some practices will have to change.
Reversing “the trend of top-down control over teachers” and creating meaningful career pathways, including professional development and peer observation opportunities, could help restore morale, Kraft and Lyon wrote in their paper, though they did not recommend specific approaches.
The country must also grapple with the fact that a rise in violence in schools, particularly shootings, undercuts the “basic sense of safety and security” needed to effectively teach and for students to learn, the paper concludes.
Ultimately, investing in teachers benefits students, which, long-term, benefits the entire community, Lyon said.
“Teachers are the no. 1 school-based factor that affects student learning. So, if we care fundamentally about student learning, then we need to care fundamentally about teachers,” she said. “To the extent that the teaching profession suffers, our ability to help students become active participants in democracy is going to suffer.”