Why Has Teacher Morale Plummeted?

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Teacher Kennis Wong at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, California: Interference from above and commercialization are driving teachers out of the profession. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A slew of policies and technologies promising to dramatically revolutionize teaching and education over the past decade has not only failed to produce desired results, it has also led to a decline in teacher morale, with large numbers leaving the profession.

A recent report for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy organization, found that about "13 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million teachers move schools or leave the profession every year."

The question is how did this happen? While the answers to the current problems are long and complex, some of them can be traced back to the road to reform starting in the 1980s when measurable academic standards were set up for students.

As a researcher and author of a 2012 book on education reforms in the U.S. on top of being the father of children who are attending public schools, I have seen how these reforms have led to a situation in which teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low and university graduates are less inclined to join the profession.

Teachers lost control of curricula

Over the past few decades, teacher professionalism and morale declined as education was turned into a market with a push for high-stakes testing and a centralized control of education.

Since the beginning of the latest rounds of education reform in the early 2000s, billions of dollars have been spent at the local, state and national levels on programs such as “No Child Left Behind,”Race to the Top” and “Common Core.”

Supported by a wide variety of “reformist” groups, which include foundations, consulting firms, charter school and voucher advocates, neoliberal think-tanks and teacher-bashing politicians of both political parties, education reforms ended up making way for privatization, charter schools or voucher systems.

As a result teachers no longer control the curriculum as they should. This vacuum has been filled by a host of commercial companies that have developed products to be used both inside and outside the classroom.

They range from Professional Learning Communities, Competency-Based Education, Smart Boards, Khan Academy, Flipped Classrooms and Personalized Learning to name but a few on a very long list. Teachers in school have seen a variety of such ‘edu-fashions’ in the form of reforms, flicker and fade.

Despite this there is little evidence to show that any of this has worked, even by the reformers' criteria for success in testing and evaluation methods such as, “valued added measures” and standardized tests scores. In fact, years of these “disruptive innovations” have resulted in a situation today of poor job satisfaction for teachers.

Highly stressed school teachers

The 2012 MetLife Survey of Teachers found that teacher job satisfaction declined from 62 percent of teachers feeling “very satisfied" in 2008 to 39 percent by 2012. This was the lowest in the 25-year history of the survey.

The survey also showed how stressed teachers in America were. It found that over "half (51 percent) of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week," an increase of 70 percent from teachers reporting stress in 1985.

It is not surprising then that the turnover rate in the teaching profession is on the rise. The report for the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that “over 1 million teachers move in and out of schools annually, and between 40 and 50 percent quit within five years.”

Enrollment declining in teaching programs

In addition to these rather grim statistics, fewer university students are, unsurprisingly, going into the field of education.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education “enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012.” In California alone, enrollment in teaching education programs declined by 53 percent over the past five years.

Indeed, we are now in the early days of the “Great Common Core Gold Rush” as companies dash about trying to provide the curricular and testing materials for Common Core, much as they did for the earlier state-based testing demanded by No Child Left Behind.

However, the time is now long overdue to begin an entirely new path of education reform—to rediscover the road to reform that was not taken. This path seeks to support teachers, re-establish their autonomy and rebuild the more general trust in institutions.

As a system like Finland’s illustrates, the key to effective schools does not reside in the interventionist strategies and think-tank polished ideas, but in the way teachers and schools are supported, both financially and publicly.

The ConversationSteven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University. He is the author of Reconfiguring Truth: Postmodernism, Science Studies and the Search for a New Model of Knowledge (Rowman & Littlefield); Modernizing the Mind: Psychological Knowledge and the Remaking of Society (Praeger) and Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge). This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.