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Findings on Low Teacher Job Satisfaction Questioned

In a piece for Real Clear Politics, Andrew Rotherham, a.k.a. Eduwonk, questions the much-publicized finding in the recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher showing that teacher job satisfaction is in a precipitous state of decline.

First, Rotherham argues, there's a vantage-point issue: While only 39 percent of the teachers surveyed indicated that they are very satisfied with their jobs (down 5 percentage points from last year), an additional 43 percent said they are "somewhat satisfied." So, in all, 82 percent of teachers said they are either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied, suggesting—in Rotherham's view—that educators are "actually quite positive about their chosen profession." Incidentally, our former teacher-blogger Patrick Ledesma, now an educator liaison with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, made the same point in connection with last year's MetLife Survey. (The MetLife Foundation provides funding to Education Week Teacher to support its capacity to engage teachers interactively in professional community.)

The second problem, Rotherham charges, is that the finding that job satisfaction has declined is "based on dubious polling." A closer look at the survey, he says, reveals that the question on teacher satisfaction changed between years, from asking about teaching as a career in 2008 and 2009, to asking about teaching as a job in 2011 and 2012. Rotherham writes:

When asked about career satisfaction in 2009, 59 percent of teachers said they were "very satisfied." The next time the satisfaction question was asked, in 2011—this time focused on about job satisfaction—only 44 percent said so. Perhaps things got bad; you can't know. But in 1985 and 1986, the question was also changed—again from asking about career to asking about job. What happened? Those saying they were "very satisfied" fell 11 points. It's reasonable to infer, both as a matter of survey methodology and also common sense, that the wording does matter. ... What MetLife did would be akin to asking a soldier on a tough deployment how he likes his job vs. asking him how he likes his career in the armed forces—and claiming that it was the same question.

A quick review of the historical survey data we conducted also found that in 2008, when the question referred to teaching as a career, the percentage of teachers who said they were "very satisfied" was at its highest point—62 percent—since 1984.

Dana Markow, vice president of youth and education research for Harris Interactive, the firm that conducts the survey, said in an interview that, while she couldn't speak to why particular questions were used initially in the 1980s, the group chose to change the question back to "job satisfaction" in 2011 in order to make comparisons to 1984. Markow also stressed that "even when comparing the exact same wording between 2001 [the last time before 2011 that the question asked about teaching as a 'job'] and 2011, or from this year to last year, ... there was a drop in the percentage of 'very satisfied.'"

She explained that, "typically, you do want to keep things as consistent as possible in terms of questions' wording." Had the survey asked the same question each year, she said, "it is an open question as to whether or not [the results] would be different." However, she said that both versions of questions about professional satisfaction "focused more broadly than on [a teacher's] current position."

When asked why the report focused on the percentage of "very satisfied" teachers, rather than those satisfied overall, Markow said, "The most positive end of the [4-point] scale—in this case 'very satisfied'—is recognized as a more sensitive measure of gauging changes over time."

Markow also suggested that correlating indicators of professional morale included in the survey (on stress levels, for example) show distinct patterns of differences between the "very satisfied" teachers and other teachers surveyed.

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