In one of the largest national surveys of public school teachers, thousands of educators agreed that today’s students aren’t college-ready when they graduate from high school. Teachers’ suggestions for solving this problem include clear, common standards; multiple measures of student performance; and greater innovation, including differentiated instruction and more use of digital resources.
The survey, titled “Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools,” was commissioned by Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by Harris Interactive. More than 40,000 public school teachers in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade participated, and the results were released March 3.
The survey focused on the state of American education, the challenges facing students, and the tools and resources teachers need to face those challenges. Teachers gave honest opinions on issues such as student achievement, performance pay, technology use, and administrative support—and some of their answers might surprise school leaders.
“Teachers are a critical part of preparing our children for the future, and their voices are an essential addition to the national debate on education,” said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education, during a webcast to discuss the survey results.
The survey reveals that, while teachers have high expectations for their students, they overwhelmingly agree that too many students are leaving unprepared for success beyond high school.
Teachers were nearly unanimous in saying that a high school diploma is not enough for today’s students. Ninety-three percent of teachers said schools must prepare students for more than high school graduation; at the same time, 9 in 10 teachers said not all of their students could leave high school prepared to succeed in a two- or four-year college.
Also, only 16 percent of teachers “agree strongly” that students enter their classroom prepared for on-grade-level work.
“A lot of teachers find it difficult when student enter the classroom unprepared for their grade level,” said Andrew Liss, a seventh-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Edison, N.J., “because that means you have to take your foot off of the accelerator and stop and sometimes reverse. However, it’s part of a teacher’s job to differentiate instruction and help those who fall behind.”
“Even though states have standards, that doesn’t mean every school’s curriculum will be aligned with those standards,” said Cate Dossetti, a teacher at Fresno High School in California. “It also comes down to: Are you teaching children vital skills, like critical thinking, that they can take with them throughout life, or are you teaching them a finite fact to know in order to fill in the correct bubble on a standardized test?”
Other survey findings debunk several commonly held myths about teachers’ views.
For example, the survey found that while higher salaries are important, teachers said they are less important than a supportive leader. Fewer than half of teachers (45 percent) said higher salaries are absolutely essential for retaining good teachers. More teachers said it’s essential to have supportive leadership (68 percent), time to collaborate (54 percent), and high-quality curriculum (49 percent).
“Let’s be honest,” said Dossetti, “no amount of money will ever compensate for wanting to go to work that day. For me, it’s usually about how we support each other, how our administration supports us, and how much time is left for collaboration. And while extra money is great, right now performance pay doesn’t yet know how to measure what makes a great-performing teacher; it’s not just about standardized test grades—it’s about how your students grow [from] day to day in all aspects of life.”
Beth Prince, a kindergarten teacher at Hearst Elementary School in Washington, D.C., said supportive leadership is much needed in schools and motivates teachers.
“It’s so important to involve teachers in the school processes and provide us with access to resources like professional development and collaboration. Also, give us a chance to work with the community and parents,” she said.
“One of the biggest challenges we hear from teachers is finding a good principal,” said Scholastic’s Mayer. “A good principal supports teachers; what professional in any setting wouldn’t want a supportive leader? Teachers needing supportive principals is no different that what any professional wanting to succeed wants.”
The survey also revealed that teachers aren’t opposed to standardized tests as one way to measure student performance. More than 80 percent of teachers said district-required tests are at least a somewhat important measure of student performance (84 percent).
Yet, these should be just one aspect of how students’ success is measured, they said Other measures of success should include formative assessments, performance on class assignments, and class participation along with standardized tests.
“Teachers do value standardized tests, but not as a stand-alone measurement,” said Vicki Phillips, director of education for College Ready at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Standardized tests need to be mixed in with daily and local assessments as well.”
Mayer said that while there must be accountability in the form of standardized testing, technology now makes it possible to capture student performance in real time, and this technology is needed to balance out single performance-based testing.
“We need more authentic testing for students, and technology makes that possible,” she said. “Students can take their time, not feel so pressured, and have testing tailored to them.”
Having tenure doesn’t make a good teacher, survey respondents said: Only 10 percent of teachers said tenure is a very accurate measure of teacher performance, while 42 percent said it’s not accurate. Student engagement and year-over-year progress of students are viewed as the most accurate indicators of teacher performance measures (60 percent and 55 percent, respectively, rated these as very accurate), but they are not frequently used to evaluate teachers.
Textbooks aren’t the answer, either, teachers say. Just 12 percent of teachers said traditional textbooks help improve student academic achievement, and a mere 6 percent said textbooks engage students in learning. Eighty-one percent of teachers said up-to-date, information-based technology is very important or absolutely essential to improve student achievement.
According to Fresno High School’s Dossetti, books are great and students can still enjoy them, but adding technological resources enhances the learning experience.
“For example, I have my students read a book, then ask them to go onto Ning and have a discussion about their reading when they get home,” she said. “Technology can really extend the day and make books and textbooks more interactive and engaging.”
“Not all textbooks are bad,” said Liss, “but there are certainly other options to engage students. The trick when using technology is not to lose focus of the learning objective. Sometimes you see teachers and students using this and that technology for a project and they get too caught up in the technical aspects; you can’t lose focus of what it is you’re really trying to get your students to learn.”
The survey also showed that a teacher’s job doesn’t end at 3 p.m. Seven of 10 teachers said they attend their students’ after-school and weekend events. More than half (51 percent) of elementary school teachers are willing to have parent-teacher conferences at students’ homes, indicating their understanding of time-strapped parents and their belief in the importance of helping every child have a strong home-school connection.
Besides voicing their opinion on the challenges that education is facing, teachers also gave their opinions on solutions to those challenges.
The survey identifies five solutions given by teachers:
1. Establish clear standards, common across states. Nationwide, 74 percent of teachers said clearer standards would make a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, with only 4 percent saying they would have no impact at all. Sixty percent said common standards would have a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, and only 10 percent said they would have no impact at all.
2. Use multiple measures to evaluate student performance. Ninety-two percent of teachers said ongoing in-classroom assessment is either very important or absolutely essential in measuring student performance, while only 27 percent said the same of state-required standardized tests.
3. Innovate to reach today’s students. More than 90 percent said differentiated assignments are absolutely essential for improving student achievement and engaging students in learning. Also, 81 percent of teachers reported that current information-based technology that is well integrated into the classroom is absolutely essential or very important in raising student achievement.
4. Accurately measure teacher performance, and provide non-monetary rewards. Only 22 percent of teachers indicated that principal observation is a very accurate measure of their effectiveness. Yet, more than half of teachers said that student academic growth (60 percent) and student engagement (55 percent) are very accurate measures of teacher performance. Fewer than half of teachers said higher salaries are absolutely essential for retaining good teachers, and only 8 percent said pay-for-performance is absolutely essential.
5. Bridge school and home to raise student achievement. Eight of 10 high school teachers (81 percent) attend students’ after-school and weekend events, and more than half of elementary school teachers are willing to have parent-teachers conferences at students’ homes.
“‘Primary Sources’ tells us that teachers see a need for stronger curriculum that relates to the real world, clear academic standards from grade to grade, and reliable data on student learning,” said the Gates Foundation’s Phillips. “The survey tells us that what’s good for students and student achievement is good for teachers, too—in fact, it’s what they want.”
“The survey results are significant and come at a time when there is far too much scapegoating of teachers by those who ought to know better,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.
“Teachers are willing to go the extra mile to help students succeed, but they need tools, time, trust, and support to do their jobs well. As the survey shows, teachers know better than most what students need and feel strongly that they must be a real partner with school leadership in designing improvement plans.”
According to the survey’s sponsors, every state was represented in the survey, and at every grade level. Participants ranged from those who teach in one-room schools in rural communities to those in affluent suburbs and large urban districts. Teachers of English-language learners and special-needs students also are represented.
The study’s size and scope allows for analysis of teachers’ views by grade, income level, years of experience, and more. The report also provides an in-depth look at state-by-state data, revealing differences in teacher views from one state to another.
The survey was conducted by phone and online from mid-March to mid-June 2009.
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Enterprising Instruction resource center. Using data to inform instruction is one of the Obama administration’s keys to effective school reform, and technology is helping a growing number of educators accurately identify their students’ needs and deliver targeted—and timely—interventions when appropriate. To benefit fully from such a data-driven instructional model, schools need a system for tying their instructional and administrative processes together—in effect, bringing an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) approach to the classroom. Go to: