The 74 Fact-Check: Are Teachers Really Burning Out Because of Tougher Tests and Evaluations?

The Fact-Check is The 74’s ongoing series that examines the ways in which journalists, politicians and leaders misuse or misrepresent schools, education data and research. See our complete Fact-Check archive.

“Many educators are leaving the field because of what is being done to schools in the name of ‘accountability’ and ‘tougher standards,’” wrote Alfie Kohn in Education Week. “I have no hard numbers here, but there is more than enough anecdotal evidence — corroborated by administrators, teacher-educators, and other observers across the country, and supported by several state surveys that quantify the extent of disenchantment with testing — to warrant classifying this as a fact.”

Kohn’s essay appeared all the way back in 2000, but evidently, little has changed since to challenge this commonly accepted narrative: Op-ed pages and education blogs are still quick to spotlight anguished claims that high-stakes testing, accountability and education reform — ahem, “reform” — have piled stress on top of teachers, driving an increasing number of educators from the profession and stopping others from entering it altogether.

The latest in this genre comes from Timothy Walker, writing this month in The Atlantic, who quotes a teacher saying, “[T]he system that we have right now in America, which is focusing on test scores and accountability, and has teachers being pulled in so many different directions at once, has got so many different pressures coming from so many different places.”

Walker proceeds to cite an unscientific (“circulated via email and social media”) survey of teachers conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association and a single Colorado teacher who says he quit after 25 years because of too much paperwork.

In another recent example, Education Week blogger Marc Tucker attributed much-discussed (and debated) teacher shortages in part to “a growing number of teachers … getting sacked on the basis of the test performance of their students.”

A news story earlier this year in The Washington Post proclaimed, “In an era of fierce debate about public education, morale among teachers has taken a nose­dive, according to national polls.”

Such dire coverage sparks two important questions: Is the teaching profession becoming less appealing — as measured by turnover, job satisfaction and interest in the profession? And if so, are testing and accountability policies part of the explanation?

On both questions, the evidence fails to support the sweeping declarations about the desirability of a teaching career and the impact of reform policies on educators.

Interest in becoming a teacher is down — but so is teacher turnover
Only one poll to my knowledge shows that teacher morale has taken a “nosedive.” This was a widely cited survey conducted in 2012 that found that only 39 percent of teachers reported being satisfied with their jobs, compared with a high-water mark of 62 percent in 2008. It’s not clear what caused this decline, but the survey finds that declining school funding — a common phenomenon in the aftermath of the Great Recession — was associated with lower morale.

I am not aware of other scientific surveys that have shown drops in teachers’ job satisfaction. One poll earlier this year found that about 60 percent of teachers reported that they and their colleagues were generally satisfied, though a similar number said they didn’t have as much enthusiasm for the job as when they began teaching.

But, setting satisfaction aside, what about teacher retention? The numbers show that in recent years teachers have been more likely to stay in the classroom. A 2015 study issued by the federal government looked at teachers who began their career in the 2007–08 school year and found that only 17 percent were not in the classroom five years later1 — much lower than previous estimates of 50 percent attrition over five years. Again, a possible cause of this phenomenon is the economic downturn, as many teachers may have been unlikely to quit while few jobs were available.

Let’s turn next to the steep decline in new students signing up for teacher training programs, which some have blamed on accountability measures. The evidence for this view is scarce. One careful analysis found three state policies strongly associated with drops in enrollment: the number of teachers laid off in recent years, whether layoffs were conducted based on seniority, and teacher salary. However, there was no statistically significant relationship between enrollment declines and whether a state linked test scores to teacher evaluations — a high-profile and controversial policy backed by the Obama administration.

This study is not definitive for determining cause and effect, but it does suggest that bread-and-butter issues like pay and layoffs — rather than accountability, standards and testing policies — are the main factors driving away potential educators.

Finally, there is research, both nationally and in New York, suggesting that more academically qualified individuals have entered teaching starting in the early 21st century, though there doesn’t appear to be more recent evidence available. The national study notes, “We find that new teachers in high-stakes classrooms tend to have higher SAT scores than those in other classrooms. … Test-based accountability greatly increased after the 2001 passage of NCLB, but we see no evidence that more academically proficient teachers entering the workforce in the year immediately following graduation are shying away from (or at least are not being assigned to) high-stakes classrooms."

Research findings conflict on how testing and evaluations are affecting teacher turnover

Despite the rhetoric, there is little evidence suggesting that testing and evaluation policies have led to across-the-board reductions in teacher retention or job satisfaction. (I asked two researchers — Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington and Matt Kraft of Brown University — and both agreed there isn’t a great deal of research on the question.)

But what studies exist suggest that accountability policies have not had large impacts on teacher retention or satisfaction.

For instance, a trio of researchers examining the now-infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB), using national data, found that “perhaps surprisingly” there were “positive trends in many work environment measures, job satisfaction, and commitment across the time period coinciding with the implementation of NCLB.” In trying to isolate the impact of the law itself, the research estimated little effect one way or another.

“Simply stated, our results do not support media accounts, academic reports, or policy rhetoric more generally that portray NCLB as undermining teacher morale and intent to remain in the profession,” the authors concluded.

Another study looked at the teacher attrition after New York introduced testing for fourth-grade students in the 1990s: Again, the researchers note surprise that turnover among fourth-grade teachers actually dropped.

A recent paper showed that Chicago’s pilot teacher evaluation system had no effect on teacher turnover writ large — except for the lowest-performing teachers. Another pair of studies found that, unsurprisingly, teachers who receive higher evaluation scores are more satisfied and more likely to stay in the classroom than colleagues who receive lower performance ratings.

This suggests that the rise of evaluation systems may not have had negative across-the-board effects on teachers but could induce turnover among low-rated teachers — arguably a desirable effect of the policy.

On the other hand, there is evidence that teachers in specific schools facing stronger accountability pressure experience greater stress and higher turnover.

Another study of NCLB found that in schools trying to avoid sanctions under the law, teachers felt less job security and untenured teachers worked longer hours. Notably, the study found that students seemed to benefit from the accountability in the form of slightly higher scores on low-stakes exams.

A study in Florida, which uses letter grades to judge schools, found that F-rated schools saw an uptick in attrition among high-performing teachers. Similarly, North Carolina’s old accountability system seems to have led to an increase in teacher turnover. Still, in Florida, those schools saw performance gains.

One recent study argued that test-based accountability policies are associated with increases in teacher stress, though it’s not clear whether the research was able to isolate cause and effect.

Those concerned about testing and accountability policies driving teachers from the classroom often cite surveys of teachers who depart from the classroom. Indeed, about a quarter of non-retiring teachers who left the profession said one reason they quit was that they were “dissatisfied with student assessments and school accountability measures.” Seventeen percent cited dissatisfaction “with support preparing students for assessments.”

However, social scientists, including those in education, have long cautioned against reading too much into self-reported surveys. This survey allowed teachers to select multiple responses, so it is unclear how many teachers identified testing policies as the primary reason for leaving.

One concerning note, however, is that teachers of color appear to be more likely to cite dissatisfaction with testing and accountability as a reason for leaving. This may help explain other evidence showing that non-white teachers have higher turnover and dissatisfaction rates than white teachers.

To summarize, as one review of the published evidence put it: “Research to date suggests that accountability has not dramatically changed the career choices of teachers overall, but that it has likely increased attrition in schools classified as failing relative to other schools.” There is less research on teacher evaluation policies, but what exists suggests that turnover and dissatisfaction may be particularly acute for teachers who receive poor ratings.

The research doesn’t support the sweeping claims about why teachers quit

There are many potential explanations for why research is not aligning with conventional wisdom on this issue. Maybe the existing studies aren’t sophisticated enough. Maybe there isn’t enough research out yet on the new breed of evaluation systems. Maybe accountability systems — including evaluations that continue to rate the vast majority of teachers as effective — simply do not directly affect most teachers.

And although a four-year-old study shows a drop in teacher satisfaction, and enrollment in teacher prep programs has fallen, other indicators, like retention and teachers’ academic credentials, paint a more encouraging picture.

It is certainly legitimate to worry about the effect of new education policies on the teaching workforce, and it is clear that working conditions matter a great deal for teacher retention.

However, panicked headlines and broad assertions about testing or standards driving our teachers out of the classroom are simply not supported by the existing evidence. If we want to solve the problems of teacher dissatisfaction and turnover — as well as declining interest in the profession — the first step is a correct diagnosis.

1. Some suggest that because of non-response bias, this survey may underestimate the number of teachers who left the classroom. Adjusting for this, another analysis suggested that the turnover rate was 19 percent over five years. (return to story)

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