03/14/2012 06:59 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

Improving the Conditions for Teaching and Learning

The headline from the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher warns education policymakers and leaders in our schools and communities that teachers are increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs. Teachers with low job satisfaction rates feel they don't get support, that they work in isolation, and have less help from parents.

When you dig deeper into the results of the survey, other troubling data emerges. The MetLife survey makes crystal clear that what happens outside the classroom also matters to teachers and has an impact on instruction. Teachers know that family matters and that poverty matters.

This year's survey took a special look at parents and the economy, seeking to understand their impact on teachers and schools. Teachers reported noticeable changes in the children they teach and in their families. A majority of teachers said that more children and families require health and social support services, and one-third indicated that more children are coming to school hungry.

It doesn't matter who you're voting for in November or whether you believe in standards, charters, wrap-around services, or teacher quality. Nobody can expect our children to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy when they are persistently hungry, sick, and in need of other supports.

Making matters worse, teachers described reductions and even eliminations of health and social support services to help children and their families and that after-school programming is being cut. Ten percent of teachers reported that their schools didn't have health or social services to begin with. Schools with existing supports saw more teacher layoffs, and those with higher numbers of English language Learners and large low-income populations had greater reductions in supports.

So while the needs of children are greater, the supports continue to shrink or be eliminated -- especially in the schools that need them the most.

Why does this matter to education? Research tells us that social and health needs have a direct effect on the classroom (see for example Charles Basch's paper Healthier Students are Better Learners). And the MetLife survey confirms the impact of these factors on teachers -- as the needs of children increase, teacher satisfaction decreases.

When there are distractions in the classroom and in children's lives, teachers have a harder time doing their job. That's not an excuse, that's reality, and the survey supports this. For example, the researchers found that close to 20% of students skipped a class because of family responsibilities. Kids can't learn when they're not in school.

And these are not only urban challenges. Rural and suburban teachers also reported increased needs for students and families.

So what are schools with a decreasing set of resources doing about the increased needs that prevent children from learning? The survey suggests that they are turning to partnerships with families and the community.

Parent involvement is increasing in America's schools. More than 70% of teachers and parents reported that there are a wide range of opportunities for parents to support the school. A similar percentage says that their schools are excellent or good at coordinating resources and services both from the community and to the community. Parents in schools with high levels of parent engagement say their schools are doing a better job at providing supports and resources. Not surprisingly, however, the survey notes that parent engagement and support is lowest in high-needs schools.

How then should our schools and our communities respond to the twin challenges of parent engagement and a lack of health and social supports, especially in schools serving low-income children? To address the parent issue, teachers and principals need better professional development to learn how to effectively engage parents. Schools also need a focused approach to bring parents into the school and for making them active participants in their child's education. Teachers in the survey suggested that there is room for growth in parental engagement and that improvement in this area would lead to stronger teacher job satisfaction.

We also need deeper school-community partnerships. We need schools to be educational, social and cultural hubs of the community, or what we call community schools. In these schools families participate in decisions about the school, work to increase social supports for children and families, and support teachers and principals. Partner agencies work closely with teachers, assessing student and family needs, and bringing community resources together. However, partners' expertise and resources cannot make up for the deep cuts we are seeing in school district budgets.

The community school strategy is emerging in a growing number of places. From Tulsa to Philadelphia, from Oakland to Grand Rapids, and from New York City to Evansville, school and community leaders are partnering to support students. But more needs to happen.

Our nation's schools face myriad challenges, as the MetLife Survey indicates. Especially at a time of decreasing resources, if we are to create the conditions for teachers to teach and students to learn, partnerships with parents and community organizations must be part of the solution.