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January 18, 2023
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Is the Teaching Profession in Decline?

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New study calls for “generational response” to raise teacher satisfaction and the profession’s prestige. 
School Culture
Is the Teaching Profession in Decline?
Credit: Bankrx / Shutterstock
The teaching profession’s prestige, including teachers’ job satisfaction, is facing a historic low point, new research shows. By analyzing several sets of public data, researchers from Brown University and the University of Albany have found that the professional prestige of teaching, interest in the profession among students, how many individuals are preparing to enter the profession, and teachers’ on-the-job satisfaction are all currently at or near their lowest points in the past 50 years. 
Understanding how the public, including students, thinks about teaching can be complicated when educators are at times both celebrated for meeting students’ needs amid great challenges and maligned for problems in the U.S. education system as a whole. But the researchers focused on quantifiable metrics that allowed them to understand both perceptions of teaching generally (including from people who are not educators) and the experiences of working and prospective teachers.  
“The data points we draw on are from more than a dozen different independent sources, measuring not unrelated, but different elements of this broader construct of the overall state of teaching,” said Matthew Kraft, a professor of education and economics at Brown University and one of the study’s co-authors. “The fact that across decades, [these data points] move together. . . is very striking, frankly.” 
The researchers also evaluated a list of eight factors that could contribute to the overall state of the profession, including teacher compensation, working conditions, and changing labor market opportunities. By following how these factors have evolved over the past half-century, the research team argued that many of teachers’ professional needs today are largely unmet.  
“We’re arguing that, more than ever, teachers need support,” said Melissa Lyon, a professor of education policy at the University of Albany and the study’s other co-author.  

Declining Prestige

The researchers consulted more than a dozen nationally representative datasets from 1970 to today. The PDK/Gallup Polling of Parent Perceptions, for example, measures teaching’s professional prestige by tracking answers to nationally representative samples of U.S. adults who were asked, “Would you like to have a child of yours take up teaching in the public schools as a career?” The NCES Survey of High School Seniors, on the other hand, provides details from nationally representative surveys documenting how many high school seniors report expecting to become school teachers at the elementary or secondary level.  

We’re arguing that, more than ever, teachers need support.

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To understand teachers’ job satisfaction, the researchers analyzed data from National Education Association surveys, MetLife’s Survey of the American Teacher, the Schools and Staffing Survey and the National Teacher and Principal Survey from the U.S. Department of Education, the RAND American Teacher Panel, and the American Federation of Teachers Member Survey. These surveys were conducted at different times and intervals since 1970, but together, they form an estimate of how working and prospective teachers have felt about their job over the past several decades.  
“We are trying to get at both perceptions and real choices that people are making,” said Lyon. “Getting a teacher’s license, or completing a degree in education goes beyond just ‘What do I think of the teaching profession?’ It's also getting at, ‘Am I willing to enter the teaching profession, and put down resources towards that goal?’” 
The researchers found that perceptions of teacher prestige had fallen between 20 and 47 percent in the last decade and are 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 the number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade. Teachers’ job satisfaction, they found, is at the lowest level in five decades.  
Notably, the research team also isolated eight possible contributing influences on these trends—education funding, teacher compensation, changing labor market opportunities, teacher unionism (restrictions preventing teachers from unionizing as well as changing collective bargaining strategies), barriers to entering the profession, teacher working conditions, teacher accountability and autonomy, and school shootings—and followed how they have changed over time. The authors recognize that this list is an incomplete accounting of potential influences on changes to the profession, but they present them all as compelling and relevant phenomena whose effects are worth more extensive study.  
Overall, they contend, teachers and the teaching profession need serious and multifaceted support that addresses a wide array of factors, including the potential contributing ones they outline. 
“[Support for the teaching profession] can come in the form of high-quality instructional curricula and resources, time to collaborate with their colleagues, opportunities for leadership, and to have a voice in shaping school priorities and driving school culture,” said Lyon.  
That support also needs to honor educators’ expertise and experience. Top-down measures that seek to improve working conditions but ignore educators’ strengths and autonomy, they argue, can be counterproductive.  
“Elevating instruction via top-down prescriptions of what teachers teach and how they should teach it constrains [teachers’] professional judgment,” said Kraft.  “And if they don't have some agency to do those things in ways that make them feel like they are respected professionals, then it changes the nature of the profession.” 

We’ve Been Here Before

The study’s findings may seem bleak, but the researchers emphasized that the historical perspective can provide critical insight for educators, leaders, and policymakers today. Teaching suffered a similar decline in prestige and public support in the 1970s, they note, but was able to rebound during the 1980s, a change documented in the pages of Educational Leadership.  
“We've been in this place before; we were in a really similar place in the 1970s, and we came out of it,” said Lyon. 
Teacher compensation, they note, is one factor that strongly aligns with the changing trends in the 1970s and 1980s. But policies that offered teachers more autonomy and provided them with more professional development, coaching, and opportunities for professional advancement could also have contributed to the turnaround. In general, any solution for the profession’s declining well-being will need to be multi-faceted and systemwide.  
“There's no smoking gun, we don't know exactly what it's going to take. But it is going to take a generational response that is systematic, that is a structural response to fundamental core issues in relation to the teaching profession,” said Lyon.  
Learning from the profession’s past can also provide a much-needed element of hope.  
“A lot of times in the past few years, we've had a tendency to say that everything's unprecedented. ‘We're in such unprecedented times,’” said Lyon. “But our approach is saying this is not unprecedented. And because this is not unprecedented, this is also not hopeless.”

Noble Ingram is an Editor with Educational Leadership magazine.

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