Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

  Teaching Status Reaches 50 Year Low


  The teaching profession is “ or near its lowest levels in 50 years” according to a November study just published by Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Melissa Lyon at University at Albany. While plenty of studies have documented the recent dramatic loss of teachers across the nation, their study uses a wide array of long term surveys and data going back a half century.

    In “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction over the Last Half Century,” they examine long term changes in “ funding, teacher pay, outside opportunities, unionism, barriers to entry, working conditions, accountability, autonomy, and school shootings.”

    The authors point out that K–12 schools need over 3.7 million teachers.  Therefore each normal year requires schools to fill over 200,000 newly vacant positions. But they contend “the sheer number of teachers needed limits the ability of most educator preparation programs and schools to be highly selective about whom they admit and employ....” This is wrong. When we look at Finland, Sweden and some other advanced countries, they take their teachers from the top of their college graduates. Our lack of selectivity reflects the American anti-intellectual valuing of teaching as a semi-profession. A factor these authors do not recognize.
     They examine over a dozen data sets across the last 50 years to detect changes in: “professional prestige, [teaching] interest among students, preparation to enter the profession, and on-the-job satisfaction.” They found “...three major periods of change in the status of the teaching profession...across the last half century. Prestige, interest, preparation, and satisfaction declined rapidly in the 1970s, rose swiftly in the early to mid-1980s, remained somewhat steady for the next 20 years, and then began declining precipitously....” Since I taught middle and high school science starting in 1969, I was in the classroom to witness these changes in income, public attitude, and governmental interference.

    While they document the decline in the 1970s, they fail to realize the impact of the spirit of that time. Russia had launched Sputnik in 1957 and America invested in solid reforms in education for a decade. Then there were three national assassinations from 1963 to 1968. The U.S. public and students went into an academic depression, with SAT scores dropping 35 points by 1977. While these authors fail to recognize this major factor for this first nosedive in scores, they do provide graphed evidence for other factors that also continued to depress U.S. education and teacher morale.

    Harris and Gallup Poll data compare public attitudes across the last 50 years. Parents wanting their child to become a teacher dropped from 75 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 2021. Those who perceived teaching as “prestigious” dropped from 80 percent in 1996 to under 60 percent in 2020. College freshmen pursuing a career in teaching dropped from 18 percent in the 1970s to 4 percent in 2019.  The percentage of college graduates nationwide completing a BA or MA with an education major dropped from 26 percent in 1972 to 8 percent in 2020. They found that “teachers’ job satisfaction is also at the lowest level in five decades, with the percent of teachers who feel the stress of their job is worth it dropping from 81 percent to 42 percent in the last 15 years.”

    The most severe decline has occurred following the implementation of the No Child Left Behind and subsequent modifications that have severely eroded teacher professionalism. While it is unthinkable that politicians would interfere with medical doctors’ practices and demand every patient survive and be cured by 2014, essentially the demand on teachers laid down by NCLB, there has been growing tension over student performance leading to political interference. The authors note “This tension has led to repeated efforts to raise instructional quality by controlling teacher practices with top-down management and standardization, diminishing teachers’ autonomy and disregarding their expertise.”

    This de-professionalization of teaching through imposing standardized outcomes has been the main concern of my K–12 biology teaching colleagues in these last 20 years, and there is no indication that this decline will turnaround until teachers are given back their full authority to teach. Nor are there any actions being taken by state boards of education nationwide toward restoring professionalism.