Opinion | Attacking Teachers From Every Angle Is Not the Way to Improve Schools

The result?

Sixty percent of teachers and 65 percent of principals reported believing that systemic racism exists. Only about 20 percent of teachers and principals reported that they believe systemic racism does not exist, and the remainder were not sure. More teachers of color (69 percent) reported believing in the existence of systemic racism than White teachers (57 percent). We saw a similar trend among principals: 79 percent of principals of color reported their belief in the existence of systemic racism compared with 61 percent of White principals. Nearly all Black or African American principals (92 percent) and teachers (87 percent) reported believing that systemic racism exists.

White educators working in predominantly white school systems reported substantially more pressure to deal with politically divisive issues than educators of color and those working in mostly minority schools: “Forty-one percent of white teachers and 52 percent of white teachers and principals selected the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions as a job-related stressor, compared with 36 percent of teachers of color and principals of color.” In addition, they write, “Teachers (46 percent) and principals (58 percent) in schools with predominantly white students were significantly more likely than teachers (34 percent) and principals (36 percent) in schools with predominantly students of color to consider the intrusion of political issues and opinions as a job-related stressor.”

A 54 percent majority of teachers and principals said there “should not be legal limits on classroom conversations about racism, sexism, and other topics,” while 20 percent said there should be legislated constraint. There were significant racial differences on this issue: “62 percent of principals of color and 59 percent of teachers of color opposed such legal limits, compared with 51 percent of white principals and 52 percent of white teachers.”

Voters, in turn, are highly polarized on the teaching of issues impinging on race or ethnicity in public schools. The Education Next 2022 Survey asked, for example:

Some people think their local public schools place too little emphasis on slavery, racism, and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States. Other people think their local public schools place too much emphasis on these topics. What is your view about your local public schools?

The responses of Democrats and Republicans were mirror opposites of each other. Among Democrats, 55 percent said too little emphasis was placed on slavery, racism and other challenges faced by Black people, and 8 percent said too much. Among Republicans, 51 said too much and 10 percent said too little.

Because of the lack of reliable national data, there is widespread disagreement among scholars of education over the scope and severity of the shortage of credentialed teachers, although there is more agreement that these problems are worse in low-income, high majority-minority school systems and in STEM and special education faculties.

A study based on a survey last summer of 682 public high school principals and on 32 follow-up interviews, conducted by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at U.C.L.A. and the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California-Riverside, “Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple, and Red Communities,” found:

Public schools increasingly are targets of conservative political groups focusing on what they term “Critical Race Theory,” as well as issues of sexuality and gender identity. These political conflicts have created a broad chilling effect that has limited opportunities for students to practice respectful dialogue on controversial topics and made it harder to address rampant misinformation. The chilling effect also has led to marked declines in general support for teaching about race, racism, and racial and ethnic diversity.

These political conflicts, the authors wrote,

have made the already hard work of public education more difficult, undermining school management, negatively impacting staff, and heightening student stress and anxiety. Several principals shared that they were reconsidering their own roles in public education in light of the rage at teachers and rage at administrators’ playing out in their communities.

Since 2010 there has been a cumulative decline in four key measures shaping the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

In a November 2022 paper, “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction Over the Last Half Century,” Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Melissa Arnold Lyon of the University at Albany, State University of New York tracked trends on “four interrelated constructs: professional prestige, interest among students, preparation for entry, and job satisfaction” for 50 years, from the 1970s to the present and found

a consistent and dynamic pattern across every measure: a rapid decline in the 1970s, a swift rise in the 1980s, relative stability for two decades, and a sustained drop beginning around 2010. The current state of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years.

The analysis by Kraft and Lyon poses a crucial issue for those concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools:

Growing dissatisfaction and burnout among teachers in the wake of the pandemic and new state laws restricting discourse on racism and sexuality in schools have set ablaze a long smoldering question: Who among the next generation of college graduates will choose to teach?

Some of the specifics in the Kraft-Lyon study:

Perceptions of teacher prestige have fallen between 20 percent and 47 percent in the last decade to be at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshmen has fallen 50 percent since the 1990s, and 38 percent since 2010, reaching the lowest level in the last 50 years. The number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade, and the proportion of college graduates that go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81 percent to 42 percent in the last 15 years.

The combination of these factors — declining prestige, lower pay than other professions that require a college education, increased workloads, and political and ideological pressures — is creating both intended and unintended consequences for teacher accountability reforms mandating tougher licensing rules, evaluations and skill testing.

In their July 2020 paper, “Teacher accountability reforms and the supply and quality of new teachers,” Kraft, Eric Brunner of the University of Connecticut, Shaun M. Dougherty of Boston College and David Schwegman of American University describe the mixed results of the wave of state-level adoption of “a package of reforms centered on high-stakes evaluation systems”:

We find that accountability reforms reduced the number of newly licensed teacher candidates and increased the likelihood of unfilled teaching positions, particularly in hard-to-staff schools. Evidence also suggests that reforms increased the quality of newly hired teachers by reducing the likelihood that new teachers attended unselective undergraduate institutions.

In addition, Kraft, Brunner, Dougherty and Schwegman write:

Evaluation reforms also appear to have reduced teacher satisfaction and autonomy. We find that evaluation reforms resulted in a 14.6 percentage point drop in the likelihood that teachers Strongly Agree that they are satisfied with being a teacher. We find a 5.7 percentage point decrease in the probability that new teachers Strongly Agree that they have control over the content and skills they teach and an 8.9 percentage point drop in the probability that new teachers Strongly Agree that they have control over their teaching techniques.

The authors’ conclusion provides little comfort:

Education policy over the past decade has focused considerable effort on improving human capital in schools through teacher accountability. These reforms, and the research upon which they drew, were based on strong assumptions about how accountability would affect who decided to become a teacher. Counter to most assumptions, our findings document how teacher accountability reduced the supply of new teacher candidates by, in part, decreasing perceived job security, satisfaction and autonomy.

The reforms, Kraft and colleagues continued, increased

the likelihood that schools could not fill vacant teaching positions. Even more concerning, effects on unfilled vacancies were concentrated in hard-to-staff schools that often serve larger populations of low-income students and students of color. We find that evaluation reforms increased the quality of newly hired novice teachers by reducing the number of teachers that graduated from the least selective institutions. We find no evidence that evaluation reforms served to attract teachers who attended the most selective undergraduate institutions.

In other words, the economic incentives, salary structure and work-life pressures characteristic of public education employment have created a climate in which contemporary education reforms have perverse and unintended consequences that can worsen rather than alleviate the problems facing school systems.

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