Poll Finds Teacher Satisfaction, but Reports Skew Results

Poll Finds Teacher Satisfaction, but Reports Skew Results

By Andrew Rotherham - February 25, 2013

 At last, some good education news. A new survey of public school teachers in the United States finds that 82 percent pronounce themselves “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs. Just 17 percent say they are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.”

Yet in education circles, these findings (which came from the annual Metlife Survey of the American Teacher) were roundly treated as a disturbing development. “When teacher dissatisfaction is at a 25-year high, school leaders have to stop ignoring the red flags,” grumbled American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel was even more sour in his ssessment. “This news is disappointing,” he told The Huffington Post, “but sadly, there are no surprises in these survey results.”

Actually, there are two big surprises here. The biggest is that the alleged drop in teacher job satisfaction is bogus -- and based on dubious polling by Metlife.

The second is that, notwithstanding the sketchy survey methodology, American educators are actually quite positive about their chosen profession.

Let’s start with the teachers. After five years of budget cuts, large policy changes (including landmark reforms of how teachers are evaluated) and an increasingly vitriolic national education debate, most teachers still like their jobs.

Perhaps the reason why is alien to our chattering and advocacy class, but it's pretty straightforward: Despite its frustrations, teaching is amazing work. For starters, you get to work with kids. If that’s not enough, you also are not stuck behind a desk, and you’re also doing some of the most meaningful work one can do.

So why were union officials -- and some education writers -- so negative about the latest results?

The main reason is that the much-touted data point about teacher satisfaction is, to put it politely, fundamentally flawed. Metlife asks about job satisfaction in different ways in different years. In 2008 and 2009 they asked teachers, “How satisfied would you say you are with teaching as a career?”

The survey didn’t ask about satisfaction in 2010, but in 2011 and 2012 teachers were asked, “How satisfied would you say you are with your job as a teacher in the public schools?”

Veteran pollster and polling expert Mark Blumenthal, who is now the polling editor for The Huffington Post, says they are different questions and that “presenting the two questions on a single trend line is questionable.”

He’s being polite, too. What Metlife did would be akin to asking a soldier on a tough deployment how he likes his job vs. asking him how he likes his career in the armed forces -- and claiming that it was the same question.

“The apparently dramatic drop in ‘job satisfaction’ since 2009 could be an artifact of the change in wording, yet the authors of the report make no allowance for that possibility” says Blumenthal.

So Weingarten, Van Roekel, and a credulous education press (“U.S. teachers’ job satisfaction craters,” blared The Washington Post) were responding to a five-year “trend” based on two different questions.

To be fair, you have to hunt in the text underneath a table buried in the middle of the report to see what’s going on. The report itself highlights the 23-percentage-point decline in job satisfaction since 2008 in its executive summary, and Metlife touted the same finding in its marketing materials sent to the media. So I asked Dana Markow, who leads the MetLife research for the national polling firm Harris Interactive, if it was really accurate to say there was a 23-point drop based on these questions?

After gamely defending the Metlife approach, she acknowledged, “It is unknowable as to what the result would be if the same question was asked.”

 She’s right. When asked about career satisfaction in 2009, 59 percent of teachers said they were “very satisfied.” The next time the satisfaction question was asked, in 2011 --  this time focused on about job satisfaction -- only 44 percent said so. Perhaps things got bad; you can’t know. But in 1985 and 1986, the question was also changed -- again from asking about career to asking about job. What happened? Those saying they were “very satisfied” fell 11 points. It’s reasonable to infer, both as a matter of survey methodology and also common sense, that the wording does matter.

So, returning to teachers, what do the data really show?

The percentage of teachers saying they were “very satisfied” with their “jobs” fell to 39 percent from 44 percent last year. That’s a decline, but hardly a crater. And those teachers did not shift from very satisfied to “dissatisfied.” Rather, they still say they’re satisfied -- just not “very satisfied,” the highest level a respondent could indicate in the survey.

In fact, only 17 percent of teachers say they are dissatisfied overall, according to this year’s survey (actually a very slight decline in dissatisfaction from last year, something you’ll search in vain for in any of the coverage of the survey).

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t facing real problems. The survey is full of information about those challenges. It also offers some clues as to why teachers are frustrated (budget cuts are a big culprit). Still, given how difficult the last few years have been in this economy, most occupations would be proud of an 82 percent overall job satisfaction number.

Surveys like the Metlife one are Rorschach tests for advocates, who see and seize on whatever nugget might bolster their agendas. That’s Advocacy 101, and Van Roekel and Weingarten aren’t analysts or public intellectuals -- they’re lobbyists. But the poor-mouthing of good news about teachers is more than a tactic; it’s a symptom of education’s counterproductive grievance culture.

Instead of highlighting positive trends in teaching, union leaders and various advocates would rather stoke resentment. We’ve all heard the litany: “Low pay! Too much testing! No respect!” There is some truth to all of that, but it’s only part of the story. An enviable level of job satisfaction is another. We hear about a “war on teachers” but, ironically, their self-avowed champions talk the job down as much as any critic.

It’s a self-defeating strategy. We can’t hide from the problems, but we might consider spending a little more time talking about the good aspects of teaching if we want to make education a more attractive career option. If Metlife really wants to help with that effort, it can do its small part by playing its survey straighter next year.

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a national education non-profit. He was a White House aide to President Clinton and is a former state board of education member in Virginia.

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