“Go to law school.” This was the advice that my mother—who had spent her entire career as a high school English teacher—gave me upon my college graduation. She also advised me on which career to avoid: teaching. My mother was adamant that I not follow her footsteps into the classroom. In her view, the long hours it required, the mediocre pay it promised, and above all, the lack of respect it received disqualified the profession from serious consideration by a young professional.
Recent research by Matthew A. Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon analyzing the past fifty years of the K–12 teaching profession in America shows how widespread these perceptions are.
The motivation for the study was both to better understand the current state of the teacher profession as the nation emerges from the Covid-19 era, and to explain macro-level changes to the profession over time. To achieve these goals, the study compiled and analyzed data from 1970 to 2022 on four factors: professional prestige, interest among students, preparation to enter the profession, and on-the-job satisfaction—which, taken together, serve as a “barometer of the state of the profession.” Data come from over a dozen surveys and studies, including the Harris Poll Prestige Ratings, the PDK/Gallup Polling of Parent Perceptions, the NCES Surveys of High School Seniors, and the RAND American Teacher Panel.
Kraft and Lyon find that all four factors have fluctuated considerably over the last five decades. The prestige of teaching—as measured by public perception—declined sharply in the 1970s but experienced a steady recovery through the 1980s and 1990s. The 2010s began a new decline that continues today. The 2022 PDK/Gallup Polling of Parent Perceptions showed that just 37 percent of parents want their children to become teachers.
Student interest in teaching has followed a similar pattern of decline, recovery, and decline since the 1970s. According to the CIRP Freshman Survey, a longitudinal study administered to incoming college students by the Higher Education Research Institute, interest in becoming a teacher fell from 22 percent of freshmen in the early 1970s to 5 percent in 1982. It ticked back up to 10 percent in the 1990s and 2000s, but dropped back down to 5 percent by 2013.
The same fluctuations were seen in the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees completed in education. In the early 1970s, roughly one in four college graduates completed a degree in education. This figure fell to one in eight by 1987, where it remained steady until the 2010s. But by 2019, it had dropped further to just over one in twelve.
For those graduates who did become teachers, job satisfaction peaked in 2008 with 62 percent of survey respondents claiming they were “very satisfied” with their jobs. The numbers then fell off a cliff. By 2022, just 12 percent of teachers claimed to be very satisfied.
These fluctuations over time cannot be explained by a single cause. Instead, Kraft and Lyon identify eight explanations: education funding, teacher compensation, changing labor market opportunities, unionization, barriers to entry, working conditions, accountability and autonomy, and school shootings. They identify compensation as the strongest factor in the overall health of the teaching profession, but they also recommend that policymakers increase teacher autonomy and create opportunities for career advancement.
The study paints a bleak picture during a time when effective teachers are desperately needed. The 2022 NAEP results showed that pandemic-era learning loss wiped out two decades of growth in reading and math scores. There is an epidemic of student mental health crises. School administrators report that disruptive and violent student behavior has skyrocketed. To reverse these and other disturbing trends, a great educator is needed in every classroom. Kraft and Lyon’s recommendations to increase teacher pay and autonomy could help in this recovery.
SOURCE: Matthew A. Kraft and Melissa Arnold Lyon, “The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession: Prestige, Interest, Preparation, and Satisfaction over the Last Half Century,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (November 2022).