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Answer Sheet
Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 05/15/2011

What do teachers really want?

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This was written by John Merrow, veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of national publications. He is president of Learning Matters, a non-profit media production company, and his latest book is The Influence of Teachers . This post was published on his blog, Taking Note.

By John Merrow

I believe that the harsh criticism of teachers and their unions is largely undeserved. I also believe it is hurting public education.

In the clamor, the voices of regular classroom teachers are difficult to hear, which is why I am devoting this blog to them. With apologies to Sigmund Freud, “What do teachers want?”

Some answers to that question can be found in recent surveys by Met Life and the Gates Foundation/Scholastic. I include some of those findings below.

Renee Moore, a veteran teacher who is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, says it’s all about respect. “Highest on my list,” she wrote, “would be more respect for the professional expertise of teachers, particularly for those of us who have shown consistently, year-after-year that we are highly accomplished teachers.”

That seems to be consistent with a Met Life finding that most teachers feel they are being ignored. “A majority of teachers do not believe that teachers’ voices are being heard. Seven in ten teachers (69%) disagree with the statement that “thinking about the current debate on education, teachers’ voices in general have been adequately heard.”

Moore continues: “By every means we currently have for measuring teacher performance, I am considered an excellent teacher; yet, when it comes time to decide what should be taught and how my students’ learning should be measured, I have little or no say. This is also true for teachers as a group.”

What form would respect take? “The reward for excellent teaching should be increased responsibility for the policy decisions that govern our work.”

In other words, pay attention!

The Gates/Scholastic Survey of 40,000 teachers reveals that paying attention would also entail giving equal weight to teachers’ assessments of student achievement. “From ongoing assessments throughout the year to student participation in individual classes, teachers are clear that these day-to-day assessments are a more reliable way to measure student performance than one-shot standardized tests. Ninety-two percent of teachers say ongoing in-classroom assessment is either very important or absolutely essential in measuring student performance, while only 27% say the same of state required standardized tests.”

Another Board-certified teacher, Kenneth Bernstein of Maryland, calls for an end to micromanaging: “Treat us as a profession,” he wrote. “That is, require appropriate training, which is not five weeks before turning us loose in a classroom. Give us appropriate support, which means do not overburden us with too many students in a class or too large a student load. And pay us as the professionals we are so that we do not lose so many of our gifted teachers because they cannot afford to raise a family on what they are paid.”

I also directed my question — “What do teachers want?” — to Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland. High on his list was collaboration. “American teachers get a fraction of the time our counterparts overseas get, and most of the time is filled with either top-down professional development or administrative staff meetings. We need dedicated time to look at student work, to reflect and engage in these processes.”

The Gates/Scholastic Survey emphatically supported Anthony’s point. “When asked about teacher retention, nearly all teachers say that non-monetary rewards like supportive leadership and collaborative working environments are the most important factors to retaining good teachers. Fewer than half of teachers say higher salaries are absolutely essential for retaining good teachers and only 8% say pay for performance is absolutely essential.”

Money matters less than collaboration!

According to the Gates/Scholastic survey, “Teachers are skeptical of current measures of teacher performance, with only 22% indicating that principal observation is a very accurate measure. At the same time, more than half of teachers indicate that student academic growth (60%) and student engagement (55%) are very accurate measures of teacher performance — much more so than teacher tenure, which a significant number of teachers said is not at all accurate.”

The Met Life survey reveals a crucial nuance: the newer the teacher, the more likely they are to want to collaborate. “Regardless of their specific path to teaching, new teachers are strong proponents of collaboration. Although teachers across experience levels agree on many of the topics in the Survey, new teachers (those with five years of experience or less) emerge as having a particular affinity for collaboration. New teachers strongly agree in greater numbers than do veteran teachers (those with more than 20 years of experience) that their success is linked to that of their colleagues (67% vs. 47%).”

And the newbies are ready to collaborate with anyone who shares their concern for student learning. “New teachers are also more likely to emphasize the importance of collaborating with other groups to improve student achievement. They are more likely than veteran teachers to say that strengthening ties among schools and parents is very important for improving student achievement (95% vs. 85%).”

These are hopeful signs, because our teaching force is growing younger by the year. In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15 years. In 2007 (the last year we have data for) the mode was one year!

The comments of all three veterans indicate their agreement with another Gates/Scholastic finding: they want the freedom to innovate. Here’s how the survey put it: “To keep today’s students engaged in learning, teachers recognize that it is essential for instruction to be tailored to individual students’ skills and interests. More than 90% of teachers say that differentiated assignments are absolutely essential or very important for improving student achievement and engaging students in learning. Also, showing a clear understanding of the world students inhabit outside of school, 81% of teachers say that up-to-date, information-based technology that is well integrated into the classroom is absolutely essential or very important in impacting student achievement.”

But innovation is not high on the list of those running the show. As Cody noted, “Modern ‘education reform’ has redefined the purpose of schools to be to raise scores in tested subjects. As teachers we feel responsible for so much more, and we find other things we value — critical thinking, creativity, compassion, civic engagement, even knowledge of history and science — crowded out when we are coerced by threats of school closures, pay cuts or the loss of job security if our test scores do not rise.”

Moore, Bernstein and Cody did not speak directly to the question of higher and common standards.... Here’s what Gates/Scholastic said on that point: “Teachers see the role clear common standards can play in preparing students for their future, but want clearer standards and core standards that are the same across all states. Nationwide, 74% of teachers say that clearer standards would make a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, with only 4% saying they would have no impact at all. 60% of teachers say that common standards would have a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, with only 10% saying that they would have no impact at all.”

So what do we know? What’s the answer to my question? What do teachers want?

Aretha Franklin said it best: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

It takes different forms, but that’s what they want — and it’s what they deserve.

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By  |  11:56 AM ET, 05/15/2011

 
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