The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
As I sit down to compose my thoughts at the end of this week, I’m sitting in an office on the ground floor of a building on the Stanford University campus. (I teach three days a week and work for ACT two days a week). I’m ruminating about the Met Life survey that came out this week, showing teacher morale around the country has reached a new low (EdWeek article; Met Life site).
Meanwhile, directly over my head on the third floor of this building, the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) is holding its Admit Day event to welcome prospective students and encourage them to choose STEP. It’s a decision I made eighteen years ago this spring, and one that I’ve never regretted.
I sat down for lunch with some of the prospective “STEPpies” as they’re known here, and tried to get a feel for their frame of mind. Why are they going into teaching? Those I talked to seemed aware of the challenges – one immediately told me about a teacher friend getting a pink slip for the third year in a row – but sanguine about their long-term prospects in the career.
I want to be optimistic and enthusiastic for the young aspiring teachers in the building today. I want to believe that they are going to help us build and strengthen the teaching profession, and that they will enter a career where they will thrive, and in turn, help our children thrive.
In the long run, I suppose I am optimistic. This too shall pass. I can’t believe, can’t let myself believe, that we as a nation or as a state will allow our public education system to implode. But how long will it take to turn the pendulum, and how much damage will be done in the meantime?
Much has been written already about the twenty-year low point in teacher morale, the numbers of my teaching colleagues who are demoralized, pessimistic about improvement, and considering leaving the profession. I won’t rehash the numbers here. For anyone following American education politics and “reform” efforts, these results are not surprising. We’ve known for a long time that teachers are under attack, unfairly blamed for systemic shortcomings (both educational and financial), and unheard by our political leaders. Teachers have offered up better approaches to school reform, and teacher solutions to issues like performance pay and evaluation, and when necessary, we’ve demonstrated against the laws and policies that hurt our schools and students. We’ve raised our voices in warning like a Greek chorus, and watched one – misguided - policy – initiative – after – another – in states, and localities – across the country.
So, no, we’re not surprised. As Walt Gardner put it in the title of his blog post on this topic, “Killing Teacher Morale Is Easy.” It seems to be quite easy at this point, especially if you run a federal department that is willing to overstep its role and strong-arm states into adopting your agenda. Or maybe you have your own TV show. Maybe education profiteers and “philanthropies” will bankroll your broadcasts of slanted summit meetings, or your misleading movie. Maybe you can organize to “stand for children” and then boast about your political manipulations and power plays. Maybe you can shake up the system and skate out of town ahead of the investigation, then start raising millions of dollars for political work, charge $50,000 plus expenses for speaking engagements, and dupe people into thinking that it has anything to do with putting “students first.”
I’m reminded of the saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” For those in positions of power and influence, it’s worth stopping to think about that idea. The teaching force is demoralized. What is your part in creating the conditions that spawned such low morale? It doesn’t matter if your failed policy pronouncements and actions are sugar-coated with platitudes. “But we love teachers! We need teachers! We should honor teachers! We should pay (the best) teachers more!” Words unsupported by actions don’t help. Is there any accountability among policy makers and “thought leaders” when they see the results of their handiwork? I know that if morale in my classroom turned out to be as low as the results of this survey, I’d be digging deep inside myself for solutions.
Teacher morale is shaped by conditions in the schools, and as Dan Brown pointed out, “Fear is a Defining Element in American Schools” – concluding his blog post with this statement:
Pessimism and worry are pervasive in American schools. Contending with elimination of services, suffocating poverty, more layoffs, larger classes, and an accountability regime at odds with genuine teaching and learning, America’s teachers are freaked out.
There are some reactions to the survey that reflect a kind of tone-deafness around these issues, and I think it’s worth pointing them out because they’re symptomatic of the problems we face. I read in EdWeek:
Regis Shields, director of Education Resource Strategies in Watertown, Mass., called that finding one of the most intriguing in the report. “What we need more information on is who the 29 percent of teachers likely to leave the teaching profession are,” she said. “If these aren’t effective teachers and this increases the effectiveness of the teaching force, that’s great. If they’re high-quality teachers, then we have some concerns.”
Now, I don’t know Ms. Shields or her organization, so I will give some benefit of the doubt regarding the context and intent of this quotation. But if it’s accurate, I’m troubled by the idea that almost a third of our teachers are thinking of leaving and she’s ambivalent about having “concerns” because these might be ineffective teachers. Is it really possible that we could have this many ineffective teachers and not see that as an indication that we need massive systemic improvements? Does she imagine that those hundreds of thousands of teachers are going to be replaced by inherently effective teachers, newly-minted and ready to overcome whatever systemic dysfunction drove out their predecessors?
To her credit, however, Ms. Shields had these additional thoughts about the survey:
Ms. Shields noted that, for her, the “most disturbing finding” in the report is one showing that 43 percent of teachers are pessimistic that the level of student achievement will increase in the next five years. “That really requires us to rethink the teaching profession if that many people are unhappy and don’t think they can have any impact,” she said.
The EdWeek article also considers, and rightly so I think, the likelihood that teacher morale is affected by testing and teacher evaluation reforms that would foolishly incorporate testing data and “value-added” measurement.
One area that the survey does not touch on but that undoubtedly has had some impact on how teachers are feeling is the push to restructure teacher-employment policies. High-profile efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, for example, have been met warily by many teachers.
“Unfortunately a lot of teachers are looking at the changes in teacher-evaluation systems very negatively,” said Ms. [Sandi] Jacobs of NCTQ. “I think a lot of teachers perceive these efforts to improve teacher-evaluation systems as real punitive efforts to label all teachers ineffective, which I don’t think they are.”
I have to take issue with Ms. Jacobs’ assessment here (again, assuming it has been reported accurately). I don’t agree that teachers see these efforts as ways to label all teachers ineffective; what we see are wildly unstable measures pointed our way in a game of professional Russian roulette, where any teacher with a value-added rating might come out looking highly effective or ineffective due to factors beyond our control. In any given year, teachers evaluated based on test scores won’t be able to predict whether the data-fairy will sprinkle the spreadsheet with good or bad magic dust (or eraser rubbings). Our fears are not irrational, not merely a matter of perception as Ms. Jacobs suggests.
See: New York City.
Anthony Cody, writing at Living in Dialogue, sees a silver lining in the debacle in New York: “[S]omething new is happening this time, and it was not what proponents of the use of these ratings for evaluative purposes intended or wanted. People are actually delving into the data to see what it shows.” For some of us, this is sort of an “I told you so” moment. Perhaps the prospect of losing so many teachers will shock some people into paying more attention to what teachers are saying about the state of the profession and schools in general.
For the sake of our students, my colleagues, and the future teachers I met today, I certainly hope so.