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Bruno: Teacher Dissatisfaction Is Mostly About The Economy

ChickenrazorThe most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher has been much-discussed in education circles, but I think commentators are trying too hard to fit the results into their preferred education reform narratives.  

The survey itself indicates strongly that the faltering economy is the biggest culprit behind the decline in teacher morale, but everybody seems to be downplaying that explanation while pointing the finger elsewhere: at bad teachers, at "reform", or at their least favorite policy makers. 

Read on for my take on Hess, Ravitch, Cody, and what it all means.

First, Rick Hess hand waves away the precipitous drop in teachers "very satisfied" with their jobs - from 62% to 44% since 2008 - on the grounds that some of the dissatisfied teachers are probably also the least effective, and we should be ushering them out of the profession anyway. However, the top line numbers mask the fact that the decline in job satisfaction seems to have occurred broadly, and this suggests that it is unlikely that the burden of dissatisfaction is falling exclusively - or even primarily - on the least competent teachers.

Then, Diane Ravitch briefly acknowledges the importance of the Great Recession, but then proceeds to direct most of her ire toward education reformers, claiming that "[i]t cannot be accidental that the sharp drop in teacher morale coincides with the efforts...to end teacher tenure and seniority." In a somewhat similar vein, after making a compelling case that economic conditions are battering the teaching profession Anthony Cody makes a dubious pivot toward blaming NCLB and Arne Duncan. His justification? Simply that "it must be noted that this 70.5% increase in teachers planning to leave the profession has occurred between 2009 and 2011, on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's watch."

It's hard to believe, however, that these correlations are evidence of much causation. If education reform had begun in earnest in 2008, then it might be plausible that reform had caused the post-2008 decline in teacher satisfaction.  In fact, however, NCLB was signed into law at the very beginning of 2002, and the reform wars have been waged rigorously at the policy level since then. Nevertheless, between 2001 and 2008 the overall percentage of teachers satisfied with their job actually ticked ever-so-slightly up, from 92% to 94%. The number of teachers very satisfied with their job rose 10 points in that time.

Additionally, the "70.5% increase in teachers planning to leave the profession" Anthony refers to warrants some context. He arrives at that troubling statistic by noting the increase in such teachers from 17% to 29% from 2009-2011. What should also be noted is that the 17% in 2009 was unusually low by historical standards and corresponded to the weakest labor market in 25 years. The 12-point increase, therefore, merely brought the level of teachers planning to leave up to the norm in recent history. (The number was 27% in 2006.)

Finally, if the education reform movement since 2008 is to blame for falling job satisfaction, then we should probably see a corresponding rise in the number of teachers who believe they are not treated as professionals.  In fact, that number has risen only very slightly since 2006, from 17% to 21%.

So while Arne Duncan did, in fact appear on the national stage at about the same time that teacher satisfaction began to plummet, this probably was, to use Diane's term, "accidental", because 2008 was not the beginning of the reform movement and the subsequent few years were also a period of severe economic hardship for state and local budgets. As the survey itself says, since 2006 the number of teachers who feel their job is insecure has more than quadrupled, from 8% to 34%.

This is more or less exactly what we would expect during a period of school closures, consolidations, and layoffs. These economic impacts on teacher uncertainty are likely magnified by the fact that teachers today are less experienced on average than they have been historically, and thus enjoy fewer seniority protections than they have in the past. Explanations based on the current state of education reform are probably neither necessary nor justified by the evidence. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Because the number of percentages complaining that they aren't treated like professionals only rose by 23% in two years, you think that refutes Cody's worries about losing teachers? I submit that teachers were slow to reject NCLB, too patient with its reforms, and held too much inside. Now, we're reaping its full destructiveness, and still the president who offered us hope is making things worse.

Is it worse for everyone? Of course not. I bet the teachers in the school featured in the NYT story on cupcakes are often relieved that their schools have been improved so much by gentrification.

I guess you have a point, though. NCLB and Duncan, after spending tens of billions of dollars, presumbably to make things better, may not have made things worse for everyone.

No, as I said I think Cody's point is refuted by a more inclusive description of the survey data and the economy. If Cody/Ravitch were correct, we should expect to see more than a 4-point increase in the number of teachers feeling treated poorly. "23%" sounds big, but "4 points" better illustrates the inadequacy of that explanation. We should also see the effects show up in the data prior to 2008, and we should see intent to leave the profession at historic highs. We do not see those things, indicating that the Cody/Ravitch theory is mostly incorrect.

I will grant that it is logically conceivable that teachers were not at all bothered professionally with reform for the first 6 years of NCLB and then decided in 2008, all of a sudden, that it was making their jobs more unpleasant, but that seems implausible in light of the fact that there's a much stronger - and causally more obvious - correlation with macroeconomic conditions.

The overall merits of Duncan/NCLB notwithstanding, the survey doesn't offer much in the way of evidence that they are responsible for the sudden decrease in job satisfaction since 2008.

There are two things in particular I like about the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher year to year: it does not seem to have an agenda but asks and reports pretty even handedly, and it has been going for a couple of decades, so it can show trends.

I note in the full report on page 13 it notes that "During a economic recession in the mid-1990’s, teacher job satisfaction actually increased. The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Old Problems, New Challenges (1995) observed:
'…teachers may choose to remain in jobs that they perceive to be more secure than many private sector occupations. And as life in the private sector has come to be perceived as more uncertain and stressful, the teaching profession may appear more
attractive in comparison.'

While the economy is certainly a factor, it does not seem plausible to say the economy alone is responsible for a 15 point drop in teachers who are "very satisfied." The late 1980s was also a time when teachers were being villified. Now like then it seems to be taking a large toll.

Teachers got through the Bush years and NCLB, and helped elect a new administration on the promise of change. The current national policy to make states adopt narrow assessments of teachers based on test scores has exhausted teacher resilience. Expectations have been crushed and morale is falling fast.

@Paul - Since the most recent recession was over twice as long and 3-4x as deep as the one in the early 90's, how comparable are they? My guess is not very.


For example, just scanning the numbers, it looks to me like from 89-92 government and education payrolls both actually grew, while they declined during the most recent recession. Those are very different economic dynamics for teachers.

Here is the thing. My biog focus in my post, which you mostly overlooked, is that teachers in high poverty schools are more likely to want to leave. Does this have to do with the economy? Of course! The whole point is that teaching in high poverty schools is especially stressful, as you well know. And a bad economy means poverty has increased, making these schools even more difficult.

The whole "reform" narrative is tied to the idea that we will somehow cure poverty through improving the teaching (or getting better teachers) in our schools. One would think this would be especially important at schools with high levels of poverty. My experience in Oakland was that NCLB had a negative effect on my own school's level of turnover, and I think the current wave of Value Added evaluation reforms will create a whole new level of stress for teachers in our most challenging schools.

Exactly how will these schools improve when the senior teacher has three or four years of experience, as is the case at some Oakland middle schools?

The economy is a big part of the issue -- but the economy equals higher levels of poverty, and this is the very thing many reformers want to write out of the equation.

@Anthony - I certainly didn't mean to overlook any of that. As I said, I found your discussion of the importance of poverty for the profession very compelling. I completely agree with you about the importance of poverty, and completely agree that reformers should spend more of their energies focusing on it. My school is exactly as you describe in terms of seniority/turnover, etc.

My point, though, was that the case for blaming Duncan for increasing teacher dissatisfaction is thin at best, so I didn't think you were justified in making that particular pivot. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I did not place all the blame at his doorstep. I said it has happened on his watch, which is true. I think the policies he has favored have made the urban classroom less stable, and more fraught with stress. That is the bottom line. Is he making the situation for teachers in these classrooms better or worse? He is not responsible for the economy, but in my view, the policies he has advanced through Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers have made things worse.

You say 4%, I say 23%. Just as long as you don't question my cherry-picking, we're cool.

Being a historian, I see it as predictable, not something potential inconcievable, that as the heat was turned up on teachers during the last decade, it was done unevenly, starting with high-poverty 3rd through 8th, going to high-poverty high school and eventually hitting the suburbs. that's certainly what I saw. And since schools have so many different sociall and political realities, you expect to see a lot of different opinions expressed.
By now, however, isn't it clear that a decade of ridiculous teacher-bashing has taken effect, perhaps reaching a critical mass?
and I don't read other teachers' reading of the MET data with your glass half-full spin. what do they say in your schools faculty lounge?

@John - Again, I think it's *not* at all clear that a decade of teacher bashing is the issue, because I doubt the "critical mass" hypothesis. It's not an incoherent hypothesis, but where are the data to back it up? I prefer the more parsimonious explanation that the economy is the vast majority of what's going on, since the correlations are (much) tighter. "Teachers didn't mind the first 7 years of bashing" strikes me as unnecessarily implausible.

My anecdotal data don't support the "critical mass" hypothesis, either. We don't use the faculty lounge much, but in my time there I've heard *far* more anxiety about pink slips than about teacher autonomy/NCLB/etc. Now, maybe my experience, and thus my anecdotes are unrepresentative - I'm a science teacher, our faculty is young, etc. - but that's precisely why I'm skeptical of other anecdotal interpretations of the survey.

I'm also not sure why you think of my reading as glass half-full. I think teacher dissatisfaction is a huge problem for maintaining a quality teacher supply, and for all of the reasons Anthony describes about the effects of a bad economy on students/teachers as well.

My point is simply that people seem to be trying to hard to make the survey data back up their a priori policy preferences. Ironically, it seems to me that reform critics here are underestimating the importance of out-of-school factors and focusing too narrowly on in-school factors, which is usually the MO of reformers.

@Anthony - I realize you didn't place all of the blame for the MetLife results at Duncan's doorstep, but it was pretty clearly implied that you placed a significant amount there. My point is that I haven't seen any evidence that he's actually to blame for the MetLife results. It's certainly plausible that his preferred policies have been bad, on balance, for education, but that's a separate issue.

In other words, your colleauges don't let you and your correlations into the faculty lounge. Just kidding!

Ha! You know, my experience has actually made me curious about whether other schools use their faculty lounges. At our relatively large school it's inconveniently located and when on earth are we supposed to have the free time to use it? We get way more socializing done in the copy room than the faculty lounge.

How does this work elsewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.

How would I know? Do you think they let me in the lounge or workroom?

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