Teachers on Teaching: Survey Asks Teachers to Weigh in on the State of American Education

Jan 02, 2019

A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation surveyed over 40,000 teachers across the U.S. The report explores key issues of education reform, such as performance evaluation and common standards, from the point of view of the educators who are at the center of the debate.

Survey Takers

Children's publishing company Scholastic Inc. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up to sponsor Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools, a survey of over 40,000 public school teachers in grades K-12. The study, which was conducted by independent polling company Harris Interactive, reached teachers in every state from all different environments, including large urban districts, wealthy suburbs and one-room rural schoolhouses. Respondents also included teachers of ESL, special education, gifted students and everyone in between. With the breadth of their sample, the survey's authors sought to 'give a voice' to teachers, the majority of whom, according to the 2010 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, don't believe they're being heard in the debates over public education.


Teachers Fear That Students are Under-Prepared

The survey was broken into two sections: challenges and solutions. In the first section, teachers were asked to identify the most important goals of public education and the biggest obstacles to achieving those goals. The overwhelming majority of teachers - 93% - responded that students need to be prepared for more than just high school graduation. Most felt that it is crucial for K-12 education to prepare students for careers in the 21st century workplace, which is becoming increasingly more global and complex. As one teacher put it, 'Internationally, we are competing for jobs and careers. We need to be more aware of what the world needs, and start thinking globally.' Other respondents also felt that students should be prepared to succeed at 2- and 4-year colleges, and that they should graduate with important life skills such as financial management and applying for jobs.

However, the participants felt that there is a significant gap between desired levels of college- and career-readiness and actual student achievement. While 79% of high school students say they plan to go to college, only half of teachers think that 75% or more of their students are prepared to succeed in higher education. Furthermore, students are consistently performing below grade level during their K-12 years - only 16% of teachers 'agree strongly' that their incoming students are prepared for on-grade-level work.

The teachers surveyed felt that these problems grow worse as students grow older. Student preparedness, achievement and potential were all rated much higher for children in elementary school, and the evaluations get progressively worse as they move to middle and high school. This perception is mirrored by national data collected on literacy rates, student achievement and graduation rates.

Teachers' Views on Student Achievement and Preparedness by Schools Median Household Income

Achievement Evaluations

From Primary Sources, page 13.

The survey's results also reflected the widely acknowledged fact that these problems are more severe for students in low-income communities, defined as those with median household incomes under $40,000. Among the teachers surveyed who work with low-income populations, about 40% were in urban areas and another 40% were in rural areas. Although the specific problems faced by urban and rural students differ significantly, both are fighting fundamental social and economic challenges that make it difficult to succeed in school.

Teachers are, of course, sensitive to these inequities. When comparing teachers' evaluations of student achievement and college-preparedness according to the median household income where they teach, the report found that teachers in low-income schools are:

  • Only one-third as likely as teachers in high-income schools to 'agree strongly' that their students enter their classroom prepared for on-grade-level work.
  • Only one-third as likely to rate student achievement at their schools as excellent.
  • Half as likely to agree that over 75% of their students are ready for postsecondary school upon high school graduation.


Improving Student Performance

In the second section, the survey asked teachers' opinions of several solutions to the problems of student achievement and preparedness that have been proposed in education reform debates. These solutions include:

Academic Standards

In general, teachers agree that academic standards have a positive impact on student achievement. Of the different types of proposed standards (which aren't mutually exclusive), 95% supported clearer academic standards, 90% supported common standards across states and 85% support tougher academic standards. However, these views shift as students progress in grade level. High-school teachers are less likely to agree that common standards would improve student performance, but they tend to support tougher standards. In their conversations with some teachers, the surveyors found that this may be due to the fact that high school teachers are exceptionally aware of the impending challenges of colleges. Many feel that tougher standards in high school would prepare students better for those challenges.

Evaluating Student Performance

While most teachers see some value in standardized tests - only 16% and 11% said that state- and district-required tests, respectively, are 'not at all important' in measuring student achievement - they feel strongly that tests should not be the sole measure of student achievement. Most felt that ongoing assessments are much more valuable. Ninety-two percent felt that formative, ongoing assessments during class are 'absolutely essential' or 'very important' to measuring student achievement. Other measures that were widely supported by teachers include class participation, performance on class assignments and assessments scored and discussed by teams of teachers. Overall, teachers felt that using multiple measures of student assessment is crucial to getting an accurate picture.

Having that accurate picture is important - the survey found that many teachers rely on student performance data to guide instruction. They also use it when discussing student achievement with parents and other teachers and, to a lesser extent, when monitoring student progress. Teachers in low-income schools did tend to use performance data more than others when monitoring student performance to help their school meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets.

Digital Classroom

Classroom Innovation

The teachers surveyed agreed that students need to see 'real world' importance or their lessons won't sink in. Moreover, they felt that relevant experiences are an important part of teaching the '21st century skills' that students need to be prepared for their careers. Teachers identified two main ways to provide those experiences:

  1. Differentiate assignments to match students' interests and ability - 95% reported that using differentiated assignments engages their students in learning.
  2. Use technology and other materials to keep students engaged. Only 12% strongly agreed that traditional textbooks help student achievement, and only 6% strongly agreed that textbooks engage their students in learning. Digital resources such as classroom technology and online programs were rated much higher, as were classroom magazines and books other than traditional textbooks.

Evaluating Teacher Performance

In general, teachers welcome assessment and feel that opportunities for continuous improvement are 'absolutely essential.' However, they feel that typical evaluations, which rely heavily are principal and department-chair reviews, are inaccurate. Instead, they support student-centered measures, such as student engagement and students' academic growth over the course of the year.

When asked about the best ways to retain effective teachers, non-monetary rewards were the most popular. Teachers felt that supportive leadership, time to collaborate and access to high-quality resources were all far more important than higher salaries. Respondents were also generally against linking pay to teachers' performance, which may be due to their distrust of the accuracy of current performance measures. Many also felt that merit-based pay systems would discourage collaboration, which could have a negative impact on student performance.

Bridging School and Home

Eighty-two percent of teachers surveyed said that 'effective and engaged teachers' are 'absolutely essential' to student achievement, but most acknowledged that academic instruction alone isn't enough to prepare students for college and career. Student motivation and a social support system, which includes family and friends, are also crucial factors. Because the social network is so important, many teachers feel it's necessary to go out of their way to strengthen the school-to-home connection. Almost half report making themselves available to students outside of school by giving out their phone numbers or email addresses, a number which may be higher if some schools and districts didn't prohibit sharing personal information with students. Seven in 10 also report showing support for students by attending after-school and weekend events, and 45% are willing to hold parent-teacher conferences in students' homes. Teachers in low-income communities are even more likely to share personal contact information or hold conferences in students' homes.

Teachers' Gender by School Level


From Primary Sources, page 105.

The report concludes with a portrait of the teaching profession via a demographic analysis of America's teachers, including gender, age, certification level, experience and the communities in which they teach. The survey found that:

  • Overall, 75% of public school teachers are women, but this balance varies significantly by school level - in high schools, only 49% of teachers are women.
  • The average age of the teachers surveyed was 42.8.
  • The average teacher has about 14 years of experience in the profession.
  • Nationwide, 94% of teachers have formal certification, and only 6% have alternative certification. There are six states in which more than 10% of teachers practice with alternative certification: Texas (21%), Louisiana (17%), Missouri (14%), Delaware (13%), New Hampshire (12%) and Florida (11%).
  • Overall, 25% of teachers work in communities with a median household income of under $40,000 and 17% teach in communities with a median household income of over $70,000.
  • Teachers in urban environments tend to be more ethnically diverse and more experienced than teachers in suburban or rural communities. They also have more low-income students and teach more English Language Learners (ELLs).
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