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The Economy as an Opportunity for Realignment

Regis Shields was asked to participate in a media call for the recently published report, “The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy.” The following is a summary of her remarks.

Implications of MetLife’s new Teacher Survey

I would like to address two major findings in the survey. I think these particular findings provide more than an opportunity, these findings create an urgency and a mandate for changing the way we think about the teaching profession and education overall.

The two findings are:

  1. 29% of teachers surveyed are likely to leave the teaching profession in the next five years to go into another profession.
  2. 43% of teachers are pessimistic that the level of student achievement will increase in the next five years. Reading that finding took my breath away. I think this is the major takeaway of the report.

Let’s start with the finding that teachers are likely to leave the profession. To understand the opportunity within this finding, we need to dig a bit below the surface. We need to understand who is leaving and why.

  • With respect to the question of who, the survey does not address what we really need to know: Are the teachers who intend to leave the ones we want to keep? In other words, are they our highest performers? If a large portion of this 29% are highly effective then we have reason to be very concerned, especially if these teachers are in hard-to-staff areas such as science and math.
  • Even when we understand the who, we still need to understand the why in order to shape a proper response: Why are teachers leaving for another profession? The survey offers some clues here. It says that 65% of teachers believe their salaries are not fair and that teachers with low satisfaction are generally unhappy with professional development opportunities and their professional community.

The economy is offering critical opportunities to address the “why” indicated in the survey through attracting and retaining highly effective teachers. This will require overhauling the compensation and career pathway structure for teachers in at least three different ways.

  1. Teacher compensation must be competitive with other professions to attract and retain the top college graduates. So the bottom line is that salaries are not fair for some and may need to be raised, but salaries are not unfair for all and should not be raised across the board.
  2. Teacher compensation must differentiate for skills, knowledge and challenge of position. Science and math teachers and those with technical training have more lucrative opportunities outside of teaching, yet all teachers are paid the same regardless of the complexity or challenges of the position.
  3. The compensation structure must recognize differences in performance. Excellent teachers are currently paid the same as average and poor performers.
  4. Teachers’ roles and responsibilities must allow for professional growth. Currently there are few opportunities for teachers to take on additional responsibilities that don’t take them out of the classroom.

So where is the opportunity to do this in an economic downturn? It’s in reallocating resources and looking to current investments that don’t contribute to student achievement. In the compensation system itself there are plenty of opportunities to reinvest. A large portion (in some districts, up to 30%) of teacher salaries are invested in experience, which does not have a strong correlation to student achievement, and 10-20% is invested in master’s degrees and other education achievement, which also does not have a strong correlation.

Now let’s turn to the finding that 43% of teachers are pessimistic that the level of student achievement will increase in the next five years. The report seems to tie this finding – this pessimism – to budget cuts. I am not so sure that this is completely the case but let’s address it.

Budget cuts and layoffs can be demoralizing in any profession or business. It is important to understand the decision behind the cut, and that requires transparency and communication. Remember, the decision to make a specific cut is made in order to “save” something. Understanding the tradeoffs districts make can take help turn pessimism into a clear picture of reality.

But I think another contributor to the pessimism is the understanding that the system is broken. We have a system that is focused equally on inputs and outcomes. What if we focused mainly on outcomes (with accountability) and provided flexibility around inputs? The lack of flexibility has resulted in a one-teacher-one-classroom model continuing to be the status quo despite evidence indicating we need to evolve. This change in perspective will require all stakeholders (the state, unions, etc.) to understand how they contribute to the status quo and rethink the way they operate.

To view the entire survey and previous ones in the American Teacher series, click here.

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