Possible Redemption for No Child Left Behind?

Contrary to popular perceptions, a new study finds that some measures of teacher happiness have actually improved since the law's implementation. 

In the ten years since its implementation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has been blamed for causing a decade-long decline in teacher job satisfaction and eroding teacher autonomy by taking control of curricula out of their hands. But a new study published online in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis“Estimating the Effects of No Child Left Behind on Teachers and Their Work Environment,” suggests that NCLB has not actually affected teacher happiness in these ways—on the contrary, some measures of job satisfaction, including classroom control and teachers’ perceptions of administrator support, have increased on average since the implementation of the legislation.

As the lead author, Vanderbilt professor Jason A. Grissom, explains in a video, “We were expecting, based on the conventional wisdom, to see these big negative impacts of No Child Left Behind on teacher job satisfaction or intent to remain in the profession, and we just didn’t see that.” He goes on:

The conventional wisdom about teacher job attitudes is that teachers’ perceptions of their jobs have actually been getting worse over this time period, and the survey data say that just isn’t true. Over the time spanning the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the teachers’ job satisfaction was actually going up; teachers’ intent to remain in the profession was going up.

This is not to say that the public’s generally negative perception of the policy is completely misguided. Other studies have attempted to quantify and describe teacher job satisfaction following the implementation of NCLB, and these projects initially suggested that the legislation had negative effects. But the authors of this new report argue that previous studies and surveys were flawed. Some used insufficient sample sizes; others attempted to draw conclusions from non-representative groups. Certain surveys that asked teachers "whether their morale or satisfaction has declined since NCLB" were susceptible to recall bias—retrospective surveys that rely on memory and recreated experiences are less reliable than real-time assessments. Given these shortcomings in the scholarly work done in the past decade, researchers hadn’t previously been able to make definitive conclusions about NCLB’s impact.

To overcome the limitations of past studies, Grissom and his colleagues analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of 140,000 public-school teachers collected by the National Center for Education Statistics every four years from 1993 to 2008. Using this information, the researchers created a “cross-section” of teachers’ job satisfaction. Because the surveys contain a baseline record of teachers’ experiences before the implementation of NCLB, the authors were able to compare pre- and post-NCLB data. 

The study’s biggest goal was gathering accurate, evidence-based information about teacher satisfaction, because this factor has far-reaching effects on education. As they wrote, “Teacher attitudes and perceptions of the work environment have been linked empirically to policy-relevant outcomes, such as teacher turnover” as well as performance, tardiness, and absenteeism.

But their conclusions will also matter a lot in the continuing debate over the re-authorization of NCLB. If policymakers want to have a constructive conversation about the law, they need reliable, sound data rather than rhetoric—which is largely what was available before now. As Grissom points out, “It’s important not to make policy changes on the basis of anecdote. It’s really important to look systematically at the evidence, and in this particular case, the evidence just doesn’t support the idea that there have been these big negative impacts on teachers.”

Grissom acknowledges that some individuals may have felt a decrease in job satisfaction as a direct result of No Child Left Behind. But, he says, these cases are not in line with the average experience of teachers in this country. On the whole, the policy seems to have had a beneficial impact on teachers' day-to-day happiness and their willingness to stay in the classroom until retirement age.

“A lot of the rhetoric about No Child Left Behind is that the law has had these big negative impacts on teachers, on teachers’ work lives, on teachers’ propensity to remain in the profession,” he writes. “What policymakers need to know is that the evidence just doesn’t bear that out.”

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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