Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Disheartened Teacher is an Idealist Who Has Been Mugged by Administration

Public Agenda's new survey, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today, could have a positive effect on discussions of teacher quality, retention, etc., if given a fair reading. Here's the basic idea:

Researchers at Public Agenda conducted a cluster analysis of the survey results revealing three distinct groups of teachers. Based on their unique individual characteristics and their attitudes about the profession, teachers naturally fell into three broad categories which researchers call the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

The view that teaching is “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,—they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and the undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rate their principals as “excellent”” at supporting them as teachers, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Nearly three-quarters cite “discipline and behavior issues” in the classroom, and 7 in 10 say that testing are major drawbacks as well.

By contrast, the vast majority of teachers in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) view teaching as a lifelong career. Most say their schools are “orderly, safe, and respectful,” and are satisfied with their administrators. Sixty-three percent strongly agree “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and roughly three-fourths feel that they have sufficient time to craft good lesson plans. Those teachers tend to be veterans—94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years, the majority have graduate degrees, and about two-thirds are teaching in middle-income or affluent schools.

However, it is the Idealists—23 percent of teachers overall—who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession (42 percent say it was “one of the most important” factors in their decision, and another 36% say it was a “major” factor). In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, “given the right support, can go to college,” the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field.

Unfortunately, this analysis has some serious spin on it. The attitudes of "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" toward teaching and learning are more similar than different; more similar to each other than to the "Contented." The difference between "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" can be summarized thus:

Q13. When it comes to having an orderly, safe and respectful school atmosphere, are the working conditions at your school

Very Good: Contented - 76%; Idealists - 68%; Disheartened - 28%

A Serious Problem: Contented - 2%; Idealists - None!;   Disheartened - 14%

There are similar examples, that's just one. So while 10% more "Idealists" think all their kids go to college, they're all working in schools with at least adequate working conditions, and 11% fewer are in high schools, where teachers have a more tangible sense of who is going to be ready for college. Also, 74% of "Discouraged" teachers were motivated by a desire to help underprivileged kids, compared to 78% of "Idealists," but only 56% of the "Contented." Considering those responses and others the underlying similarity in philosophy between "Idealists" and the "Disheartened" is evident.

The "Contented" are the teachers that David Warlick and Will Richardson get paid to talk to year after year. They present their own kind of low-grade reform problem, but it is completely separate from urban school reform.

Let's go back to those numbers on having a "orderly, safe and respectful school atmosphere." There are a few ways to read the results, but I think this is a valid and straightforward interpetation:

Of 890 teachers surveyed, not a single "Idealist" survived in a atmosphere they percevied as presenting "a serious problem." Not one.

All the "Idealists" either avoided those schools, left, or became "Disheartened." That should tell you something about the influence of a school's environment on a teacher.

Nonetheless, this is how Public Agenda frames their "Questions for the Field" (from their presentation):

  • Should Idealists be retained and nurtured? Are they "Transformers?"
  • Could/should we try to attract the Contented to high-needs schools?
  • Should the Disheartened be eased out of the profession? Can some be reclaimed, and what would it take to do it?

What dishearteningly stupid questions. Should "Idealists" be retained? Of course. Are they "Transformers?" There is no reason to think they are inherently different than the "Disheartened," aside from having less experience working in badly run schools. Why would the "Contented" succeed in high needs schools? They are by definition happy with their current situation, and their motivations are significantly different than the other groups'. "Disheartened" teachers deserve better schools and better working conditions, or at least a followup study of the objective circumstances under which "Idealists" and "Disheartened" teachers work.

Here are some better questions:

  • What turns an "Idealist" into a "Disheartened" teacher?
  • What turns a "Disheartened" teacher back into an "Idealist?"


Dowell said...

Did you ever find an answer to your final question? How do you turn a disheartened teacher back into the idealist they most probably once were?

Tom Hoffman said...

I have not gotten an answer to that.