If There’s A War On Teachers, It’s Not Working. Why Not?

thereisnoreformLast week at This Week in Ed I wrote that, contrary to some narratives, many people should still view teaching as an attractive profession:

Certainly, the last decade of education reform has substantially changed the work of many teachers, especially elementary, math, and English teachers in low-scoring schools. Many other teachers, however, have experienced education reform much less directly or intensely, and in any case many teachers are probably not as sensitive to those changes as Stephanie or Gary.

People also go into teaching much as they go into other professions: for a wide variety of often-complicated reasons. Some new teachers are looking to change or “defend” education, but others enjoy talking about their subject matter, like working with kids, or appreciate the vacation time…

Ultimately, then, whether other people think you should become a teacher is mostly irrelevant, especially when their reasons are heavily rooted in their personal ideologies or professional preferences. Teaching has a lot to recommend it and if it’s something you want to do with your life you should probably go for it.

I wrote that over the weekend (as I do most posts) which means that I wasn’t even aware of the CAP report that came out last Monday on teacher job satisfaction, which found that 90% of teachers feel fairly autonomous and 89% of teachers are satisfied with their jobs. This makes it all the more difficult to take seriously the argument that the last decade or more of education reform has been driving people away from or out of the classroom.

It’s worth remembering, though, that critics of modern education reform have been actively ignoring a lot of teacher satisfaction data for years. It was almost two years ago that I wrote about strained misinterpretations of a MetLife survey that found that teacher job satisfaction had – if anything – actually notched up in the years after the passage of NCLB.

On Twitter Doug Lemov attributed some of these misrepresentations to disenchanted teachers being poor losers:

That might be a part of it, and it’s probably why teachers who don’t passionately object to reform are often dismissed as mentally ill.  But many of these unnecessary discussions about whether people “should” go into teaching seem to me not so much petty as oblivious. The assumption seems to be that teachers just must be dissatisfied and there’s not really any recognition that one’s personal experience may not be representative.1

To be fair, it’s arguably a little surprising that teachers’ views of their jobs haven’t changed more dramatically. After all, you can make a case that public education today operates very differently than it did in, say, 2000 and many of those changes would seem to have increased demands on teachers. So you can sort of understand why someone might be inclined to take it for granted that teachers are substantially less satisfied with their work than they used to be.

In fact, reformers may very well want to gloat a little less about the survey data and ask themselves why teachers don’t seem to care very much about all of these reforms.

The reformers’ assumption seems to be that they’ve found a free lunch: they can introduce considerable accountability without annoying teachers. But there’s another possibility, which is that most of the reforms that have been introduced just aren’t impacting the classroom much on a day-to-day basis or in ways that can be felt by teachers.

My experience is that both reformers and their critics underestimate the extent to which most teachers can ignore most reforms most of the time. Many teachers do not teach heavily-tested subjects – i.e., math or ELA – and those who do are often observed only occasionally and by administrators who are busy with other obligations and in no mood to pick fights about curriculum and instruction. And it’s not hard for any teacher to justify just about anything in terms of “rigor”, “standards alignment”, and “learning outcomes”.

In other words, most teachers can continue to do whatever they want in the classroom even under our contemporary accountability regime. And this ability to ignore reform helps to reconcile relatively steady teacher satisfaction data with the spread of significant-seeming education reform.

This possibility should be especially concerning to reformers who take the position that teachers and teacher quality are crucially important to improving educational outcomes. To date, however, I don’t think I’ve seen reformers publicly consider it.

So to sum up the state of education reform at the start of 2014: Reformers have spent many years trying to radically change education. So far this seems not to have affected teachers all that much but reform critics don’t seem to realize it and reformers don’t seem to mind it.

  1. You see something similar with critics of the Common Core standards, who often seem bizarrely confident – on the basis of very little evidence – that “teachers” and “students” hate the new standards. []
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