Under sustained assault from politicians and pro-privatization billionaires, struggling with budget cuts and layoffs, and trying to teach increasing numbers of children who come to school hungry, American teachers are, unsurprisingly, growing demoralized. MetLife's Survey of the American Teacher, conducted last fall by Harris Interactive and including telephone interviews with 1,001 public school teachers, 1,086 parents of public school students, and 947 public school students, found that teacher satisfaction is at its lowest point since 1989, with just 44 percent reporting themselves to be very satisfied, and that the economy and economic inequality have a strong effect on schools, teachers and students.
The percentage of teachers saying they are very or fairly likely to leave the teaching profession within the next five years rose sharply between 2009 and 2011, from 17 percent to 29 percent. Unsurprisingly, teachers who report low job satisfaction are three times as likely to say they are likely to leave teaching. Among other non-surprises, teachers who feel their jobs are not secure are more likely to be dissatisfied—and the percentage of teachers who do not feel their jobs are secure has risen from 8 percent in 2006 to 34 percent today.
It's not just job security, though. Low job satisfaction is correlated with decreases in professional development opportunities and time to collaborate with other teachers, and increases in staff reassignments. These teachers are more likely to report having faced budget cuts in their schools, including reductions in health or social services and arts and music programming. They aren't just coping with school budget problems, either:
Teachers with low job satisfaction are more likely than those with high job satisfaction to report that there has been an increase in the number of students and families needing health and social support services (70% vs. 56%), in the number of students coming to school hungry (40% vs. 30%), and in the number of students leaving school during the year to go to another school (22% vs. 12%) in the past 12 months.Correlation isn't causation, of course, but the correlation between teachers with low job satisfaction, schools with budget problems, and students coming to school hungry or needing health and social support services points strongly to the importance of the economy and inequality to educational outcomes.
Inequality raises its head on a regular basis throughout the survey: Teachers who aren't happy in their jobs are more likely to teach in urban schools and schools with more than two-thirds minority students, but not in schools with high proportions of low-income students or English Language Learners. Similarly, teachers in schools with more than two-thirds minority students are more likely to report layoffs and "reductions or eliminations of arts or music programs at their school," though not of physical education or foreign languages. And so on. Schools with high proportions of minority students, low income students, and ELL students face a crazy quilt of disadvantage, leaving teachers struggling to fill the gaps and, as a result, less satisfied with their work than teachers at schools with up-to-date educational materials and without the pressure of coping with service cuts and layoffs.
In contrast with campaigns by politicians and "reformers" to convince the public that teachers are lazy and overpaid and have excessively generous health care and pensions, the survey found that parents, on the whole, rate their children's teachers as effectively engaging them in their children's educations. Those rates decline as children move from elementary to middle to high school, but overall, 79 percent of parents say their children's teachers are excellent or good at engaging them. Additionally, strong majorities of parents feel that teachers' health care and retirement benefits are fair for the work they do (63 percent and 60 percent respectively); just 47 percent of parents say teacher salaries are fair for the work they do, but it's unclear whether they're saying salaries are too low or too high, and just 35 percent of teachers say their salaries are fair.
We already knew that budget cuts and inequality and poverty were terrible for educational outcomes. But this survey confirms, in a host of ways, that teachers and parents and students feel those effects, from their awareness of program cuts and layoffs to increased pessimism that student achievement will be better in five years among teachers and parents who report that their school's budget has been cut. Rather than cutting school budgets more and demonizing teachers more, the answer has to be to give teachers, parents and students alike reason for optimism.