Research News

Brief: Popular education reforms demoralize teachers

H. Richard Milner IV (Vanderbilt)

Three widely implemented practices intended to strengthen teaching actually do more to undermine professionalism and demoralize teachers, according to Richard Milner, associate professor of education in Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development.

In a policy brief published in February, Milner pinpoints evaluations of teachers based on annual gains in students’ standardized test scores, fast-track teacher preparation and licensure programs, and use of narrowly focused curricula as contributing to an ongoing decrease in teacher satisfaction. Moreover, schools that reduce professional development and collaboration opportunities have the most-dissatisfied teachers.

The brief, Policy Reforms and De-professionalization of Teaching, was published by the National Education Policy Center.

A MetLife Survey of the American Teacher also published in February found that only 39 percent of teachers reported themselves as very satisfied with their jobs, a decline of 28 percent since 2008.

Although advocates for each of the three policies Milner examines argue that they increase teacher professionalism, he points out that in practice these policies result in lowering the professional status of teachers.

Teacher evaluations based on gains in students’ standardized test scores, for instance, might seem to elevate teacher status by emphasizing how they strengthen student achievement. But evaluating teachers based on such measures has the effect of pressuring them “to mechanically teach to tests while systematically devaluing the broader yet essential elements of teaching.”

Fast-track teacher preparation programs like Teach for America (TFA) are known for recruiting high-achieving students from elite colleges and universities, but Milner argues that they assign these inexperienced teachers to the most challenging schools, where they effectively de-professionalize teaching. The two-year service that TFA expects is also problematic—when teaching is viewed as an interlude between college and graduate study or another profession, teachers cannot build skills based on experience.

Tightly focused and scripted curricula, says Milner, may prescribe what teachers should cover, but they undermine professional status “by not allowing teachers to rely on their professional judgment to make curricular decisions for student learning.”

In response, Milner recommends that educational policymakers impose a moratorium on using teacher evaluation models built on growth in students’ test scores until their accuracy can be significantly improved. Teacher-training programs—both traditional and fast-track—should adequately prepare teachers to make professional judgments, meet the full range of student needs, build positive working conditions, and “negotiate and balance multiple layers of bureaucratic pressures.”

Fast-track programs should not be expanded or new ones created without solid evidence of their long-range effectiveness. Curricula should be broadened rather than narrowed and should be shifted away from high-stakes, test-score based policies.

Milner’s report is available on the web at the NEPC website.