Opinion: Daily Journal

Top-Down Reforms Leave Teachers Feeling Powerless

In the classroom, nothing beats a good teacher. Abundant research affirms teacher quality as the most significant in-school predictor of student achievement. Teachers know they have the power to leave a profound imprint on the minds of students; for many, this core belief shapes their choice of teaching as an occupation.

Yet scores of teachers are withdrawing emotionally from their work. Two recent surveys paint a portrait of alarmingly low levels of engagement and satisfaction among K-12 teachers nationwide. Such findings call for corrective action — empowering teachers, principals, and other decision makers closest to students.

According to a Gallup poll released Aug. 1, fewer than one in three teachers (31 percent) is fully engaged, defined as being “deeply involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and actively contributing” to their school.

Other recent data chronicle a seismic shift in satisfaction: The latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found job satisfaction is now at a 25-year low — plummeting 23 points in five years, with a five-point drop in the past year alone. Only 39 percent of teachers are “very satisfied” with their jobs.

Why this satisfaction slide? Assuredly, teachers face myriad challenges — shifting budgets, excessive testing, complicated student needs, unreasonable parents — all of which can sap enthusiasm. But something else is afoot: Teachers today feel unbelievably stretched and marginalized. More than half in MetLife’s survey experience “great stress several days a week.” And they have a diminished sense of personal efficacy: “Teachers are the least likely of all occupations to say ‘at work my opinions seem to count,’” according to Gallup.

Is the answer better leadership from principals? Gallup senior scientist Shane Lopez says so, highlighting ample work force data reinforcing the importance of good managers. Certainly, capable, responsive school leaders are essential — but they’re only part of the solution.

Principals themselves acknowledge that K-12 education has changed considerably: Three out of four told MetLife their jobs had become “too complex.” Though highly accountable, principals have substantially less decision-making power in certain key areas than they did a decade ago: Only four in 10 say they have “a great deal of control over curriculum and instruction.”

Low control coupled with high expectations is a deadly duo, creating toxic work force stress. Anyone familiar with research on occupational strain knows this to be true. Yet what priorities does current K-12 education policy reflect?

Instead of maximizing local control, we have doubled down on federal mandates and directives. As U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., (U.S. secretary of education 20 years ago) wrote recently in National Review, “Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board.”

Indeed, the No Child Left Behind law intensified a top-down approach to reform that shows no signs of abating. Federal mandates have been followed by waivers that freed states from NCLB burdens only to stipulate new requirements, including the adoption of “common” standards or those certified by state higher education institutions.

Not surprisingly, most states, including North Carolina, have chosen the Education Department-supported Common Core — an unprecedented educational shift that will drive curriculum and diminish educators’ already-eroding autonomy in the classroom.

When will our love affair with top-down reform end? The writing is on the wall: Increasingly, classrooms are becoming regimented boiler rooms governed by disembodied bureaucrats. Of course we need accountability and high standards, but states, and ultimately, local school boards and communities should be the drivers of educational change. Otherwise, the next slide for fed-up teachers just may be the one out the door.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.