Opinion

The beatings will continue until teacher morale improves

Teachers are facing unrivaled criticism from all sides. The education reform movement has targeted them as the culprits behind failing schools. This culture of disrespect, little support, and unrelenting demands takes a toll on teachers – and on our students.

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With so much riding on efforts to improve schools, it’s a telling commentary that it takes a front-page story in The New York Times to finally get the attention of the public about the precarious state of teacher morale in this country.

Teachers don’t choose a career in the classroom for fame, fortune, or power. The overwhelming majority teaches for the inner satisfaction of helping young people. That’s why, for veteran teachers in particular, the vitriol hurled their way has blindsided them. Their younger colleagues have handled the vituperation far better, because they have never known anything else.

It’s hard to understand what reformers expect to accomplish by their incessant attacks on what seems like all teachers in general. These reformers claim that only by holding the feet of teachers to the coals can educational quality improve. It’s this argument that led to the publication in the Los Angeles Times last August of teacher ratings in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest.

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Teachers are treated worse

Yet few other large organizations aimed at improving performance participate in this kind of large-scale naming and shaming, because they realize how counterproductive it is. The military, for example, has some of the strictest standards for promotion. But the details of determining who should be moved up are done behind closed doors. The top brass has long known how important it is to maintain morale among the rank and file.

Large private-sector corporations know, too, that exposing and vilifying their employees will do little to improve performance. Even companies who pride themselves on transparent, broadly shared performance reviews share them internally, not with an unscrupulous, angry national public.

Teachers, however, are denied the same kind of treatment. Their performance, which is disproportionately judged by standardized test scores of their students, is broadcast far and wide. They are pilloried on all fronts as the chief culprits behind failing schools even though decades of research has shown that out-of-school factors are responsible for two-thirds of the variation in student achievement, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Just look at the turnover rate

The result is reflected in the turnover rate. Close to 50 percent of teachers nationwide quit the field within the first five years. The cost of replacing these teachers is conservatively estimated to be $2.2 billion a year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

California, which has the nation’s largest population of public-school teachers, serves as a case in point. With more than 300,000 teachers serving more than 6 million students, the results of teacher exit surveys can’t be ignored.

The main reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession are lack of support for the work they do and bureaucratic impediments, according to a study on teacher retention from the Center for Teacher Quality at California State University. The poor teaching and learning conditions exiting teachers described included lack of planning time, professional development, supplies and books, and support from the administration. They also spoke of excessive paperwork, classroom interruptions, and other restrictions that prevented them from doing their jobs.

Those who remain in teaching not surprisingly complain of burnout. When teachers feel unappreciated for the work they do, the constant bombardment in the form of OpEds and letters to the editor in newspapers eventually takes a toll.

Lack of respect for teaching in US

Sadly, this state of disrespect, turnover, and burnout is the antithesis of the situation of teachers in other countries. In Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, which are widely considered to have some of the best school systems in the world, teachers are held in the highest regard. That may be in part because these countries recruit their teachers from the top third of their college classes. But it’s also largely the result of the culture, which reveres learning for its own sake.

The US has always been ambivalent about teachers. Some Americans recall with appreciation the ones who played an important role in their lives. Others, however, focus on the long vacations and supposedly short teaching day.

Yet there’s another factor at play that accounts for the negative attitude. Until the mid-1970s, the overall high grades given to teachers were the result of limited openings in other fields for talented women and minorities. When they were finally able to find jobs elsewhere, teaching was faced with new competitive pressures.

Many talented professionals left for more lucrative, high-paying jobs. Teaching has never fully recovered.

Demands for improvement, little support

One chief factor that has exacerbated the flight of talent is the unrelenting demand of the accountability movement. Teachers are required to combat systemic school and community problems, address mass under-performance by students, and bring student test scores up by huge percentages in the span of a year – often with little support. Faced with growing numbers of students from impoverished, chaotic backgrounds, teachers are forced to perform triage almost on a daily basis. Little in their education and training has prepared them to play parent, psychologist, and police.

The result has been lack of time for teachers to teach the subject matter that they have been licensed to teach. Therefore, when the media focuses only on student test scores as evidence of teacher effectiveness, taxpayers are presented with a distorted picture. It’s a perfect prescription for demoralization.

It’s time to realize that teachers are doing the best they can in the face of unprecedented demands. A pat on the back – and a little practical support – at this time can go a long way to help them and ultimately our students.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog at Education Week. He taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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