As sweeping reforms dramatically change what it means to be an American teacher, a steady stream of headlines, studies and op-eds assert that teachers are more dissatisfied than ever, that they are seeking to leave the profession, and feel their hands are tied by bureaucracy and policies that stress standardized testing above all.
But a new set of two pieces by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Washington, D.C.-based think tank often aligned with the Obama administration, argues that those gripes might not be representative of the state of the profession.
"The data suggest something much different than the conventional wisdom. In fact, teachers are far more autonomous -- and far more satisfied -- than most people believe," the authors write.
The pieces, released Tuesday and provided exclusively to The Huffington Post, provided a new analysis of federal teacher survey information from the 2011-12 school year and combined those responses with those of more recent teacher surveys. Authors Ulrich Boser, Robert Hanna and Kaitlin Pennington found that more than 90 percent of teachers say they have "a good or great deal of control" over choosing their teaching methods. And high percentages of teachers -- 89 percent on one survey, 82 percent on another -- say they're satisfied in the classroom. They also found that, despite the noise, 87 percent of first-year teachers remained in education for at least three years.
"When you read headlines, you think teachers have no autonomy, they're unsatisfied, they're leaving the profession in droves. We were hearing a lot about how educators are leaving schools because of their cookie-cutter approaches," said Boser. "While it's true that many school districts have been focusing too much on testing, we wanted to dig deeper, unpack more on the autonomy about how much students learn versus how teachers teach." For example, they found that since 2007-08, the percentage of teachers reporting they have "some control over what they teach" -- 82 percent -- has hardly changed, despite changes in education.
Boser stressed he acknowledges that teachers do have a lot to complain about: low pay, long hours and districts that are implementing monumental changes, such as new evaluations or the Common Core State Standards Initiative, swiftly and often thoughtlessly. The use of cheap standardized tests, he said, leads educators to prepare students for tests they don't think are worth the trouble.
"It's important that teachers have a lot of autonomy, but it's in stark contrast to reports on the far left and far right that teachers have no control over what they do in the classroom anymore," Boser said. The study found that while teachers reported an overall high level of autonomy, it varied between states: 80 percent of North Dakota's teachers "report a moderate or great deal of control over what content to teach," compared to 42 percent in Virginia.
But the problem, the authors write, is "how we think about educator autonomy." For years, the nation has understood teacher autonomy to mean control "over both what they should teach ... and how they should teach." They assert that "this mindset should change, because the real problem in public education today is that many teachers have too much control over what they teach each day in their classroom -- and it prevents them from perfecting how they teach." They argue that giving teachers too much autonomy over what to teach makes it hard to "create a true profession" with "a common body of knowledge."
The Common Core, a set of learning standards adopted in 46 states, is supposed to address these problems, but political controversies or inept implementation can compromise what proponents call its potential.
Moving forward, Boser, Hanna and Pennington conclude, policymakers should be sure to include teachers in developing the changes that affect their lives. Specifically, Boser said, they should be consulted on the rollout of new tests aligned to the Common Core.
Representatives of the nation's two largest teachers unions did not respond to a request for comment on the papers by press time.