This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 years teaching science at a high-needs school and six years as a mentor and coach of teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher. You can follow him on Twitter at @anthonycody. A version of this post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue .
By Anthony Cody
The biggest red flag in the newly released Metlife survey of American teachers is this: There has been a 70% increase, over the past two years, in the number of teachers who are likely to leave the profession in the next five years (from 17% to 29%). This amounts to more than 1 million teachers who are preparing to march out of our classrooms. And this is in addition to the roughly 1 million teachers who are baby boomers approaching retirement age!
I wonder if the teaching profession as it is now being redesigned and redefined by school reformers is one that any of us would have chosen when we began teaching. And I wonder who would choose to teach in a school with a high level of poverty.
Here is what the Metlife report says:
“Teachers are less satisfied with their careers; in the past two years there has been a significant decline in teachers’ satisfaction with their profession. In one of the most dramatic findings of the report, teacher satisfaction has decreased by 15 points since the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher measured job satisfaction two years ago, now reaching the lowest level of job satisfaction seen in the survey series in more than two decades. This decline in teacher satisfaction is coupled with large increases in the number of teachers who indicate that they are likely to leave teaching for another occupation and in the number who do not feel their jobs are secure.”
There is a strong connection between this dissatisfaction and the rising levels of poverty we are seeing impact our schools. The report goes on to say:
“Teachers with lower job satisfaction are more likely to report that in the last year they have seen increases in: average class size (70% vs. 53%), students and families needing health or social services (70% vs. 56%), students coming to school hungry (40% vs. 30%), students leaving to go to another school (22% vs. 12%), and students being bullied/harassed (17% vs. 10%).
Seven in ten (72%) parents and two-thirds (65%) of students worry about their family not having enough money for the things they need, and 62% of parents and 54% of students worry about the parents’ losing or not being able to find a job.
Overall, 39% of parents and 43% of teachers are pessimistic that the level of student achievement will be better five years from now. Parents who say their child’s school’s budget has decreased are nearly twice as likely as those who say budgets have stayed the same or increased to be pessimistic about student achievement (52% vs. 28%). Nearly half (46%) of teachers in schools with decreased budgets are pessimistic that student achievement will improve, compared to 35% of teachers in schools whose budgets have stayed the same or increased.”
The very strongest educational data available shows a huge correlation between poverty and student achievement. Poverty impacts student achievement in many ways. As unemployment takes hold on a community, and more families lack food security, housing and health care, the impact is felt in the classroom. Students become more transient, because their housing is unstable. They do not have a place to do homework, because they are crashing on someone’s couch. They come to school late because they do not have transportation any more. They eat corn chips for breakfast because they do not have someone helping them get ready for school. And they worry! They are preoccupied with fear and insecurity, and that makes it hard to focus on academics.
The Metlife survey report aligns these conditions with teachers’ job satisfaction, and the likelihood they will leave the profession:
“...teachers with low job satisfaction are more likely to teach in urban schools and in schools with larger proportions of minority students. Teachers with low job satisfaction are more likely than others to teach in urban schools (32% of teachers with low job satisfaction teach in urban schools, compared to 25% of teachers with low job satisfaction). Teachers with low job satisfaction are also more likely to teach in schools with more than two-thirds minority students (40% vs. 28%).”
Likelihood to leave the profession shows a similar pattern in demographic characteristics as job satisfaction.
Their schools should be oases of stability in these neighborhoods. But instead, they are similarly buffeted by these economic winds. Art and music programs have been cut, counseling and library staff laid off. And Federal policy continues to demand that states label the 5% to 10% of schools with the lowest test scores as failures, and require they undergo disruptive “turnarounds” or be closed altogether.
When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965, it was part of the War on Poverty. It was designed to provide all children with fair and equal opportunities to a high quality education. But that law, through the version known as No Child Left Behind, and now the NCLB waiver process, only delivers funds to schools that implement federally favored reform projects. Furthermore, schools with the greatest challenges — large numbers of English learners and students in poverty, are subject to the threat of closure, teachers and administrators in fear of being fired for low standardized test scores.
I spent the last four years in Oakland leading a mentoring program that was trying to remedy the very high turnover rate we experience there, even higher among science teachers. The school where I taught for 18 years once had eight stable science teachers. I taught whole families of students, whose younger siblings would follow them. Now there is one science teacher there who has lasted more than a decade, and the other science classes are taught by temporary teachers, who come and go, doing their two or three year-long stints. Our students have instability in their homes, and instability at their schools to match.
When I see the numbers from the MetLife survey I am not surprised. It appears that the difficult conditions I experienced at my school are becoming more widespread.
When I began teaching in 1987, things were different. My school struggled with issues related to children living poverty, but I felt supported by my administration. I was encouraged to be innovative in my classroom. I engaged my students in scientific inquiry — and even had them designing their own experiments. I led an all-girl technology class that met before the school day began. Our science department was supported as we experimented with assessments and lesson study. There are still brave schools where this is allowed and encouraged — but high poverty schools tend to be under such pressure that this is no longer the case.
There were some remarkable reactions to the data about the increase in the number of teachers planning to leave from some of the “reformers.” Some, like Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that if these dissatisfied teachers are “lousy or doing lousy work, they should have lousy morale. Hopefully it will encourage them to leave sooner.” Unfortunately, I think it is likely to be some of the most creative teachers, working in the most challenging conditions, who are being encouraged to leave by the relentless pressure to increase test scores and the inequitable and unsustainable funding of high poverty schools.
And it must be noted that this 70% increase in teachers planning to leave the profession has occurred between 2009 and 2011, on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s watch. Perhaps this is one of the things energizing those who are calling on President Obama to replace him, and shift the direction of federal education policy.
I wonder if I would have chosen to begin a teaching career in an urban classroom of 2012.
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