Teacher Engagement Research Adds to Case for Compensation, Tenure Reforms

Little Coloradans like me have to grudgingly admit that, yes, good ideas and insights can come from Kansas, at least from time to time. In this case, a University of Kansas researcher conducted a study and found that newer teachers are more likely to be engaged at their jobs than many of their senior colleagues. The findings, based on Gallup’s 2012 broad national survey of teachers, bear some examination:

According to [researcher Shane] Lopez, K-12 teachers with less than one year of experience are the most engaged teachers at work, at 35.1 percent, based on survey data. Engagement falls precipitously to 30.9 percent for teachers with one to three years of experience, and it falls further to 27.9 percent for educators with three to five years of experience. Engagement improves slightly for teachers with five to 10 years of experience (30.8 percent) and again for those teaching more than 10 years (31.8) but is still significantly lower than the first-year rate.

It took me awhile to realize that “engagement” referred not to a status of someone who is planning to get married but to active effort, dedication, and focus on classroom responsibilities. Examples of engaged teachers include those featured in this great new 3-minute video by PACE, one of the growing membership options for Colorado teachers:

Yes, I needed a really good reason to get readers to watch that video. Like a great teachers, this video certainly is engaging. Now it’s important to note that engagement isn’t synonymous with effectiveness in improving student learning, but there’s no doubt it’s a key component.

Lopez notes “school leaders should make the most of the relatively higher engagement of today’s newest teachers and support these educators throughout their careers to maintain this engagement.” Earlier research has shown that on average, teacher effectiveness grows during the first three to five years, and then plateaus. How much of an issue in that equation is engagement?

Though engagement among teachers is higher than among the average workplace, it is a little discouraging to note that teacher engagement is only likely to go downhill after their career starts. If I were younger and more naive than I already am, this might be the point to ask why so very few school systems also have seriously re-examined pay systems that depend on seniority. Douglas County has taken the leap, recognizing some value to seniority and longevity without automatic pay increases for occupying space.

One might also inquire into the role of K-12’s costly tenure protections and the evident need for reform. Is the engagement level of a good or great teacher sapped by a system that fails to recognize excellence, and that protects a colleague who is just kicking back and “phoning it in,” or is otherwise unfit to stay in the classroom? Why should I keep trying?, some may ask.

Surely this must contribute to the decline in teacher engagement rates, though thankfully many teachers carry on without giving in to this concern for any length of time. What is hardest for me to explain is the way engagement rates decline during the first five years, then bump back up somewhat thereafter. How do we account for that finding? Is it significant? Is the effect repeatable? Are there other demoralizing aspects of a bureaucratic system that could be isolated in the results?

All in all, good food for thought and another helpful piece of evidence to toss into the mix.