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Killing Teacher Morale Is Easy

The results of the annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher confirm what has been apparent to anyone who has been paying attention to news and commentary about public schools. They show that morale is at its lowest point in more than 20 years ("Teacher Survey Shows Morale Is at a Low Point," The New York Times, Mar. 8).

The findings have direct relevance to the reform movement. Because teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement, it is imperative to do everything possible to recruit and retain the best. But about one in three teachers said they were likely to leave the field in the next five years. This compares with one in four in 2009. The reasons are a combination of the weight given to tests scores and seniority in determining employment, coupled with budget cuts that have resulted in fewer aides and counselors, and the elimination of arts, music and foreign language programs.

But I think there's another factor that is poorly understood. Teachers (and their unions) have been made scapegoats for all the ills afflicting public schools. The unrelenting criticism makes them feel unappreciated. It's important to remember that teachers do not choose the profession for fame, fortune or power. They do so because they want to help young people reach their full potential. Their mission is captured in a recruiting slogan from many years ago: "Be all you can be... in the Army."

The MetLife Survey puts to rest the assumption that teacher disaffection is higher in inner-city schools than in suburban schools. In fact, attitudes were remarkably similar across the board. This finding is notable because salaries of teachers in suburban schools are much higher than those in urban districts. For example, thousands of teachers in the New York City suburbs in 2005 were already making six-figure salaries ("6-Figure Salaries? To Many Teachers, a Matter of Course," The New York Times, Jun. 5, 2005). If money were the major factor in determining satisfaction, then teachers in the suburbs would be expected to register high on the satisfaction scale. But they don't.

It's hard to come away with anything encouraging from the MetLife Survey. I say that after careful consideration because the conditions that are responsible for teacher dissatisfaction today will only get worse in the years ahead. With approximately 2.2 million teachers expected to retire in the next decade, efforts to recruit top talent to the classroom will be a daunting challenge. This will be especially so because 200,000 or more new teachers in math and science alone will be needed. Who will want to make teaching in a public school a career?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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