Survey: Teacher morale at its lowest in decades

The survey's findings suggest it's time for a new approach to teacher development and support, experts say.

Teachers are less satisfied with their jobs than they have been in decades, but parent engagement with their schools has increased, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy, the 28th in an annual series of surveys commissioned by MetLife and conducted by Harris Interactive.

The report, based on a survey of public school teachers, parents, and students during the current school year, is the first large-scale national survey to fully reflect the effects of the economy on the teaching profession, MetLife says.

It also comes as education reform efforts have targeted teacher tenure and collective bargaining rights in many states.

Teacher job satisfaction has fallen by 15 percentage points since 2009, the last time the MetLife survey queried teachers on this topic, from 59 percent to 44 percent saying they are very satisfied. This rapid decline in job satisfaction is coupled with a large increase in the number of teachers reporting that they are likely to leave teaching for another occupation (17 percent in 2009 vs. 29 percent today).

Teachers are also more than four times as likely now than they were five years ago to say they do not feel their job is secure (34 percent today vs. 8 percent in 2006, the last time this question was asked). In addition, 53 percent of parents and 65 percent of teachers today say that teachers’ salaries are not fair for the work they do.

The ripple effects from the economic downturn might be a factor in this declining satisfaction and increasing feeling of insecurity, MetLife says. Layoffs of teachers, staff, and parent/community liaisons occurred last year in the schools of two-thirds of teachers surveyed, and three-quarters of teachers have experienced budget cuts in their schools in the last 12 months.

Teachers say there have been cuts to school budgets, programs, and services, while at the same time reporting that students and their families are demonstrating increased needs. Nearly three in ten teachers (28 percent) said there have been reductions or eliminations of health or social service programs in their schools in the past year. In addition, 64 percent of teachers report an increase in the number of students and families requiring health and social support services, and 35 percent say the number of students coming to school hungry has increased.

“The MetLife survey demonstrates that the shortages of morale and money need to be resolved if the nation is to have a more innovative, effective, and efficient education system,” said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, in a statement.

“The nation depends on its teachers more than ever to help all students graduate with the high-level skills necessary to succeed in college and a career, but teacher job satisfaction has fallen to the lowest level in more than 20 years,” Wise said. “If you believe as I do that the best economic stimulus is a diploma, then the best job creator is a well-prepared, well-equipped, highly effective teacher.”

Citing figures suggesting that up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years, Wise said the U.S. “needs a more organized, rational approach to teacher development.”

“Job satisfaction is linked with adequate opportunities for professional development, time to collaborate with other teachers, more preparation and supports to engage parents effectively, job security, and feelings of respect as a professional,” he said.

Wise’s comments were echoed in a statement from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

“Enough is enough! As a nation we say that we value teachers, but the way that we treat them says otherwise. … The drumbeat of teacher bashing is taking a staggering toll in our schools and classrooms,” NCTAF said.

“We are fortunate that MetLife has raised this warning flag in time for the nation to respond. It’s time to try a different strategy—to go beyond factory-era carrots and sticks to invest in well-informed professional development and support. … Year after year, the survey has found that teachers with high job satisfaction are more likely to stay if they are treated as professionals by their community, have adequate opportunities for professional growth, and have time to collaborate with other teachers. Schools can translate these ideas into action by organizing teachers into collaborative teams that enable them to learn from and support each other as they design engaging projects that address common student learning challenges.”

Other survey findings

A significant majority of teachers (63 percent) report that the average class size in their school has increased in the past year, and one-third of teachers (34 percent) indicate that educational technology and materials have not been kept up to date to meet students’ needs. More than one third (36 percent) of teachers experienced reductions or eliminations of programs in arts or music, foreign language, or physical education in the past year.

School budget cuts appear to have generated an additional negative effect, the survey suggests: Teachers and parents of students in schools where budgets have decreased in the last 12 months are more likely to be pessimistic (46 percent of teachers; 52 percent of parents) that student achievement will be better in five years than are teachers and parents of students in schools where budgets have remained the same or increased (35 percent of teachers; 28 percent of parents).

In a bit of good news, teachers say they feel supported by their individual communities. Overall, the survey found that a majority of both teachers (77 percent) and parents (71 percent) agree that teachers are treated as professionals by the community, and that teachers’ health insurance (67 percent of teachers; 63 percent of parents) and retirement benefits (61 percent of teachers; 60 percent of parents) are fair for the work they do.

Parents report that teachers in schools with high parent engagement also perform better on a range of measures, including collaboration, responsiveness, sharing information, contacting parents about learning issues, providing guidance on helping students succeed, and being flexible to meet with parents at different times of the day.

And in another positive development, levels of engagement between parents and schools have seen marked improvement over past surveys. Two-thirds of students (64 percent) report that they talk about things that happen at school with their parents every day, compared to 40 percent who reported speaking with their parents this frequently in 1988, the first time the survey asked this question. There was also a threefold increase in the number of students who report that their parents visit their school at least once a month—up from 16 percent in 1988 to 46 percent today.

Virtually all teachers (91 percent) and eight in ten parents (80 percent) believe that their schools help all parents understand what they can do at home to support student success, and 83 percent of students agree that their teachers and parents work together to help them succeed.

More findings on teacher job satisfaction

Teachers with high job satisfaction are more likely than those with lower job satisfaction to have experienced adequate opportunities for professional development (86 percent vs. 72 percent).

Teachers with high job satisfaction are less likely than those with lower job satisfaction to have experienced decreased time to collaborate with other teachers (27 percent vs. 44 percent).

Teachers with high job satisfaction are more likely than those with lower job satisfaction to rate the following people as excellent or good in preparing and supporting them to engage parents effectively: the principal at their school (90 percent vs. 72 percent); other teachers at their school (91 percent vs. 85 percent); and parents at their school (73 percent vs. 55 percent).

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