Mirror, mirror… reflections on MetLife Survey of the American Teacher

MetLife celebrates the 25th anniversary of its annual survey of American education with a compilation and comparative analysis of what about us has changed over those years. This wonderful service represents one of the few longitudinal collections of views from the inside of public education (administrators, teachers, and students). Also, MetLife should be credited for recognizing in the early stages of modern ed reform (if you start counting from A Nation at Risk) the need to “listen to teachers.” According to MetLife, back in 1984, “Seven in ten teachers [surveyed]…felt their voices were not adequately heard in the public debates about the future of education” (11). Well, some things don’t change. Over the years, MetLife surveys have chronicled diverse voices among educational practitioners around the country: new teachers, veterans; those who taught in urban, suburban, and rural settings. (And no, I’m not being paid by MetLife to say any of this, but the truth is the light.)

Looking at the overview of 25 years of practitioner views on education, two particular trends caught my attention: teacher views on assessment/evaluation and teachers views on technology.

Teachers and Testing

“Fewer teachers today value standardized testing as a resource for improving teaching than in the past” (22). In 1984, three in five teachers (61%) were in favor of standardized tests to measure student achievement of all the students in their school. Today half (48%) of teachers agree that standardized tests are effective in helping them to track student performance” (27).

After years of expanding the use of standardized testing in schools at all levels, it is significant that teachers views on the value of that testing is sinking. Simultaneously, teachers are reporting that students are remembering less of what they learn, and are less prepared at each level. “Teacher ratings of student skills as “excellent or good” are substantially lower for secondary schools than elementary schools in subjects including reading (67% vs. 83%), writing (53% vs. 68%) and math (53% vs. 79%).”

Observations such as these from the experts in the classroom should draw our attention back to longstanding problems in retention and alignment-despite the imposition of grade level testing programs across the nation. These are closely related issues. As schools/districts force teachers to spend more time and energy on test preparation, we aggravate the modern student propensity for relegating what they learn to short-term memory. Simultaneously (and unnecessarily) we end up splintering the curriculum into byte-sized nuggets-easy to quantify, but disjointed and harder for students to see as part of a larger learning experience.

Not surprisingly, teachers and principals disagree on the importance of standardized tests as a tool. Far more principals (79%) agree that standardized tests help teachers in their school to better track students’ performance than teachers agree (48%) (29). The type of superficial, limited, quantifiable information produced by standardized tests is easily packaged into reports, graphs, and charts that can make a good PowerPoint™ presentation, but provide very little in the form of usable information for teachers on how to meet the specific learning needs of students. Teachers, looking at the performance of individual students at the classroom level over an entire school year will have a much fuller, more nuanced view of students’ abilities as well as their potential, particularly if that analysis is done in collaboration with other members of the educational team in their school (more on that below).

The MetLife summary also noted that “more teachers (43%) agree that their classes have become so mixed in terms of students’ learning abilities that they can’t teach them effectively, compared to 1988 (39%) (28)….but only 24% of principals…agree [with that view]. In the 2008 MetLife Survey, more secondary teachers (49%) agree with this statement than elementary teachers (40%)” (29). One the one hand, teachers are being asked to do more things, for a wider range of students, with shrinking resources, often under unacceptable physical conditions, in the same amount of time, for the same salary. Nevertheless, some schools and teachers have made great strides with differentiated learning and working with diverse student populations, particularly those schools where teachers have both the time and support for collaboration with their colleagues. Here is a great example of an area crying out for more effective professional development. A big key to solving this challenge may be found in another standout area of the MetLife report: teachers and technology.

Teachers and Technology

MetLife discovered that “digital communication and information accessing is more common among principals than teachers” (22). Further, “many teachers communicate infrequently about student preparation with teachers at other grade levels. Overall, 39% of teachers report communicating about student preparation a few times a year or less” (30). “43% of teachers never communicate online (e.g., email, IM, blog) with other teachers outside of their district (31); 72% of teachers have never read or written a blog about teaching (31) [ouch]; 85% of teachers have never participated in a professionally-oriented online community or social networking site (31)”.

Hopefully, those figures have improved since the report was published, but probably not by much. Why are teachers not willing, able, encourage, motivated (___ fill in an adjective) to reach out to each other electronically and avail ourselves of the tremendous help available to us through professional social networks? Could it be that many of us have crawled into our classroom shells out of frustration? Or is that we’re too focused on the tools as something for students to use, and miss how useful they can be for us? Those of you reading this blog are probably the wrong ones to answer that question (preaching to the choir, so to speak). So maybe a better question here is: what are we doing (or could we be doing) as a community to coax more of our colleagues into proactive professional development? As one of my favorite teacher-tech mentors, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach recently put it: “Let’s stop teaching teachers to teach with technology and start teaching teachers to learn with technology.”