Ep. 395: Surveying Teachers – Fall 2023

October 31, 2023

On this edition of EdChoice Chats, host Mike McShane talks with Colyn Ritter and John Kristof about the recent EdChoice teacher polling.

Topics including students’ social media use, absenteeism, classroom disruptions, how likely they are to recommend their profession, and more.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice. And we have a special polling podcast today. Some of you join us for our monthly tracker podcast where we poll the general population and American parents, but this is a special, it’s not exactly fair to call it a one-off because we poll teachers with some regularity, but we haven’t polled teachers in a couple of months. But this September from September 23rd to 27th, in partnership with our friends at Morning Consult, we conducted a nationally representative survey of American teachers. In total, we were able to pull 1041 of them. And we asked them a whole battery of questions. Our usual questions about school choice. We asked questions about the direction of education, some questions that, if you remember back to our earlier surveys, about the net promoter score so asking them what they think about the profession. And we had a whole suite of new questions about technology and the role that everything from cell phones to ChatGPT are having on schools.

So in a shout-out to our producer, Jacob, I was thinking what sort of funny analogy could be trying to understand what was going on in this particular survey. And what I came down with was looking at this survey was like the first time, Jacob, our producer, introduced me to the band Tame Impala, which I know he was a fan of. There’s a lot going on listening to that music or looking at this survey. There’s a lot going on. And so I think we might as well dig right in.

So how could I not introduce my fantastic colleagues? So I’m joined as usual by Colyn Ritter and John Kristof, who helped conduct a lot of these surveys and helped scope out some of the questions for them. So who better to discuss the results? They did the hard work of writing the questions. Now they get to have the fun of talking about the results.

So Colyn, look, I’ll throw it to you first. What stood out to you from the results of this survey?

Colyn Ritter: Thanks, Mike. And I always love a good Tame Impala plug. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to talk about in the survey. It’s not all great and actually it’s very bad in a lot of cases.

Mike McShane: It’s one way of putting it.

Colyn Ritter: Yes, it’s rough. And we were talking before this about sort of why, and I think we’ll set the stage. Mike did a really good job of talking about some of the new questions and things that we asked, but the biggest theme, I think, came from some of the questions that we’ve been tracking for a while now. So I’ll just start with a couple of questions that set the stage for this and then maybe we can discuss why.

So we asked teachers a couple of different things broadly. We ask them one about how they feel about K-12 of education generally, whether it’s going in the right direction or do you feel it’s gotten in the wrong track? There was a decrease across the board. We asked them, and this is percent of teachers saying that it’s going in the right direction. So we asked them locally as well as statewide and then nationally as well. And typically, the closer teachers are to those scopes, so they’re more optimistic about their local school district and then states in the middle. And then they’re usually less optimistic about education nationally. But we got some really low levels there. Locally, only 45% of teachers feel it’s heading in the right direction. That’s the lowest level we’ve seen to date. Only 32% of teachers think it’s heading in the right direction, K-12 education is heading in the right direction in their state. That’s also the lowest we’ve seen. And the lowest we’ve seen nationally at 22%. So there’s a serious decrease there, roughly about a 10 point drop from when we asked them in the spring. That is actually not the most concerning one unfortunately.

We also asked a question Mike alluded to earlier about net promoter, and that basically just means how likely would they be to recommend the teaching profession to a friend or family member? And it hasn’t been super high. I’m curious what people would think about it before seeing the results, where they think teachers would land. We actually saw a really big bump last spring. We saw 36% of teachers saying that they would promote the teaching profession, which was one of the highest levels we had seen to date. That actually got cut in half. That is now down to 18%. So that’s an 18% drop from May. Now only 18% of teachers are willing to promote the profession. And you split it out in different ways and it looks worse. And district school teachers obviously have a very significant sample size, same with private school. We looked at charter school teachers. We actually had to take those out because of a low sample size and their drop was humongous. Previously, 51% of private school teachers said that they would promote the profession. That is now down to 25%, cut in half. Again, district school teachers were less optimistic than teachers as a whole and private school teachers previously. They were at 30%. That dropped to 17% of public school teachers would recommend the profession or promote the teaching profession.

So those are the two biggest really big warning signs that we got from this. I’m not sure why these drops occurred. We’ve seen actually increases in optimism and positivity among teachers going from the spring to the fall. So this was actually a pretty stark contrast to that. I don’t know. I want to hear y’all’s thoughts. I don’t want to take this over because there’s a lot of negative setting the stage stats and findings in here. But I’m curious if you guys have any takes as to why. Maybe if you guys want to dive into some of the new questions that we asked. I don’t know. It was very concerning. I want to hear y’all’s thoughts on this.

Mike McShane: Well, the thing for me, and you highlighted this a bit. I remember I think tweeting about this or I can’t remember if I wrote about it back in the spring when we last did the net promoter score question. And the thing that stood out to me then was how much it was driven by public school teachers. So I have our last survey up here. And so yeah, the overall net promoter score was minus five. So Colyn, as you said, 41% detractors, 36% promoters. But private school teachers were plus 34 and district school teachers were minus 21. And this was, I think the sample was weird for charter school teachers this time. But charter school teachers were even plus 42. So to see that switch, yes, district school teachers, it went down. So they went from a minus 21 to a minus 39. So they were already underwater there and it got worse. But it’s the private school teachers that swung from a plus 34 to a minus 14. They’re like, whoa, that’s serious.

So my story, the last time I saw it was, oh, this seemed to be whatever malaise, whatever issue was happening was confined to traditional public schools and people that were outside of that seemed to be doing okay. At least based on this last survey, that does not appear to be the case.

Now again, still it’s not as bad in private schools, so it’s minus 14 versus minus 39. You had 25% promoters in private schools versus only 17 for district schools. But that’s a worrying trend. This seems to be a sort of across the board problem that’s happening. Which doesn’t sound good.

John, I don’t know if you had anything on that question or if we’ve exhausted that and something else that stood out to you. Feel free to interpret the question that I’m asking you as broadly as possible of what was interesting and stood out to you.

John Kristof: It’s interesting to see what kinds of other measures of teacher sentiment changed over this time and which did not. So one example is the K-12 direction question that we ask in our parent surveys, our gen pop surveys, our teacher surveys as well. “Do you feel like things in K-12 of education are generally going in the right direction? Do you feel things have gotten off on the wrong track?” And there was a pretty notable drop off there as well, specifically on the state and national level. So we asked teachers to specify, “How do you feel about the direction of everything in your school district?” There was a seven or eight point decline there. But then when you get to the state or national level, we’re looking at 10 or 12 point drops there. So there’s a change in sentiment when it comes to the direction of K-12 education overall, and maybe that has something to do with the net promoter scores.

But then we have other questions like, “To what extent have you considered leaving the teaching profession for another career or retiring from the teacher profession?” And we actually have slight to significant drops in the percentage of teachers who say that they’re considering leaving or retiring. Which I would not put two and two together there when you look at the net promoter situation or the feelings about K-12 direction.

So it’s very curious. There are a lot of questions where I had assumed if something’s going down that significantly, there’s a lot of other things that are going down significantly as well. And that was the cases for some and not the cases for others. We have some other questions asking teachers overall just mental health and mood questions about how they’re doing. And there’s generally more positive than negative. And yet there’s just a lot more negativity about where K-12 is at. You have to wonder why.

Something else that you can point to in our question is it’s not because of an increased concern of violence. Maybe this is a bit of a tangent, but teachers were 24 percentage points are less likely to say that they were extremely or very concerned about a violent intruder entering their school, which means that they’re now significantly below parents as far as concern level at this point. So the drive for more negativity is definitely elsewhere.

So I’d be very curious about having further conversation just with people who are listening who are elsewhere in the education space, have expertise in other areas, maybe people are teachers or know teachers. What’s changed from this year compared to last spring or the year before? It’s very strange.

Mike McShane: Well, one potential explanation for some of this is looking at the role of technology. And in this survey we did a deep dive looking at teachers’ opinions on a host of different questions related to technology. Technology in and outside the classroom, the way it’s impacting them and their students.

Colyn, I don’t know if you want to take a first swing at it a lot, there’s a lot here. So what really stood out to you?

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, and I should have mentioned this earlier when we were talking about perhaps why. The big thing that jumps out to me is I just really wanted to know why this is very, it’s just very different from what we’ve seen in the past. And there was a [inaudible] we asked. I do want to talk about the tech, but there is one side that’s worth noting. It’s we asked teachers, “Select the best words to describe how you feel right now.” And there was an increase, a pretty serious increase in teachers saying that they feel frustrated and overwhelmed. So with those feelings in mind, I don’t want to talk like it’s definitive that these tech findings play a role in teachers feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. But perhaps they absolutely can play a role.

So just to kind of dive into some of the questions that we asked regarding technology. So we asked teachers about students’ use of computers and laptops versus cell phones. Teachers are very strong in their belief that computers and laptops are positive influences on students’ learning experiences. And they’re equally as strong in their belief that cell phones are harmful in students’ learning experiences, especially on their social and emotional development.

But the one that stuck out to me the most, it did, I don’t know. I want one of y’all to take the AI findings. I’ll talk about the cell phones. Because we do kind of split it there even though they are related under the umbrella of tech. But we ask teachers about how to reduce social media usage among teens, cell phone usage. And teachers were very strong in believing that they think rules requiring students to leave devices in their lockers or another secure location would be the biggest help there. They also had pretty strong belief that school districts should be able to choose which platforms they allow students to access during the day. And obviously students can get around that using data instead of wifi and things like that. But teachers think that social media use and cell phones are definitely playing a factor, playing a role, in the classroom and having a harmful effect on their students’ learning experiences. 70% of teachers are very concerned about social media having a negative effect on their mental health.

So teachers are very aware of the tech in the classroom, especially when it comes to cell phones. We asked… When it comes to cell phones, 58% of teachers say that their schools let students have their cell phones. Only 45% of teachers are allowed to enforce their own cell phone policies. And then about three out of 10, 29% of students, are allowed to have cell phones in the classroom.

And I had a conversation with [inaudible] really sharp and awesome coworker, Michelle Banner, and she has three young sons and we were talking about just how to handle cell phone usage. And she was saying that she felt very strongly about not letting her kids have cell phones and not letting them use in the classroom. But there are certain realities in schools now that you really do need to get in touch with your kid if something very horrible is happening in the school, whether it’s a violent intruder or a lockdown or something like that. And she ended up getting her son a cell phone. And I believe he’s in sixth or seventh grade. So that conversation just made me think of how nuanced and how difficult of a question it is of where cell phones and where that technology fits in the classroom, especially for young children.

But that also is not touching on the AI aspect of these questions, which I’m definitely curious to hear about.

Mike McShane: Yeah. And some of those stood out to me. So we asked this question, “When it comes to cell phones, does your school allow?” And it’s one of these things where because the numbers are so large when you really think about it, so yes, 58% of teachers said that their school allows students to have their cell phone in school. 45% says teachers are allowed to establish and enforce their own cell phone policies, and 29% said that students are allowed to have their cell phones in the classroom. Now, those are large numbers, but you also know that the flip side is true. So that means 42% of American schools do not allow students to have cell phones in school. Part of this could be, some of them are elementary schools where maybe that’s like an easier ask. But I still think that’s an interesting number. As a former teacher, I look at that middle number, which is allowing teachers to establish and enforce their own cell phone policies and I just cringe. Because it’s, “Oh, that’s the worst.” If you have to be the island and be the one teacher who’s like, “Nope, we’re not going to have cell phones in class.” “But Mr and Mrs. Whatever allow it.” It’s like, oh, this is the worst.

And frankly, Colyn, you were mentioning sort of the parenting thing. And we can get into some of these other things because I think the teachers and parents see it the same way, the deleterious effects that cell phones and things have. But it’s a collective action problem. You don’t want to be the one parent if every other kid has one of these cell phones and that’s how they communicate with one another and that’s how they organize, whatever, go and play soccer, whatever it is. And your kid is left out of that. It’s very difficult to be the one person that doesn’t do that. So I see it from the teacher perspective, but you see it from the parent perspective as well.

John, what of the technology stuff stood out to you?

John Kristof: One of the things that we asked about as Colyn referenced, we tried to get a sense of where teachers were at the moment when it came to AI and artificial intelligence, ChatGPT and things like that. The last time we did a teacher survey, I think it was the early stages of these types of things entering the public consciousness, entering everyday conversation. Obviously if you’re really into these things you might think everyone else is behind. But again, popular enough that we’re talking about these things in education world. And most teachers said that they haven’t really used something like ChatGPT before, but a handful said that they have. Actually, that’s kind of unfair. I would say 27% said that they’d used it in free time or free time and at school and 61% said that they had never used it before.

But we asked how they felt about using ChatGPT and AI as a learning tool. I think this is a really interesting thing to get a pulse of because again, we’ve learned earlier in an earlier question that the type of technology does matter to a teacher. There is a pretty solid positivity toward computers as a positive learning tool for students in the classroom. Obviously there are some who disagree and some believe that more intensely than others. That was generally true. We also saw the opposite for cell phones, which Colyn talked about.

So where are they on AI? And generally people do have opinions on it between 15… And depending on what grade you taught, I should say. Between 15 and 19% of teachers said that they didn’t have an opinion on it or they didn’t know. But the remaining teachers were fairly split on how they felt about AI as a learning tool. If you take all teachers into account, 40% support ChatGPT or AI to help learning. But then you have 42% say that they opposed it as a learning tool. Now if you break things down by grade, high school teachers were a little bit more likely to be positive about AI than elementary school teachers, which maybe is to be expected.

And I’m just going to be really curious to see this number change over time because I think the longer these things are out and people are able to play with them, so to speak, I think the imagination about what can be involved will change a lot. So in the earliest phase of these discussions, there was a lot of fear of like, “Oh my goodness, my students are just going to have ChatGPT write all of their essays.” Which we go down to another question. Apparently only 20% of teachers says that their schools have had some kind of experience with that. Actually, I don’t know if that’s only 20% or my goodness, that’s 20% and that’s quite high. That’s just kind of a subjective things to whether that’s high or low. Anyway, 20% of teachers say that their school has had an issue with AI helping cheating or something like that. Okay. So that’s one concern with AI.

But as more time has gone on, I think a lot more people have begun to experiment with what AI or ChatGPT can do for something like say, individualized learning. Obviously in an education system where teachers in schools have a lot of kids to teach, whether it’s because it’s the only school around or whatever the situation is, individualized learning can be difficult. So if you have technology out there that can help answer students’ specific questions and actually understand them, not quite as well as a human, but better than just typing stuff into Google and hoping that you’re asking the questions intelligently enough that Google can bring up the thing that you’re trying to look for. If you can actually have a surface level conversation with an AI to help you understand a graph or a chart or a mathematical principle or something, that’s something different than we’ve had before.

So I think it’s going to be interesting to see if either one of those possibilities wins out over time. Whether cheating concerns become a bigger issue or whether these types of essentially using AI as a tutoring tool, I’m going to be very curious to see which wins out. Maybe neither wins out. Maybe it’s just going to be a constant wrestling through a long period of time, like many technological developments. But you can’t unring the bell as they say. So things are going to move one direction or another or both at the same time no matter whether we like it or not. But we’re definitely going to keep a pulse on this.

Mike McShane: Yeah, the plagiarism one really stood out to me. Obviously I’m now mentioning twice that I used to be a teacher, but I was a high school English teacher. And so obviously seeing something like ChatGPT or others, I’m just like that would directly intersect with what I did quite frequently. But yeah, as John obliquely mentioned, but is worth lingering on for a second, so we did ask this question, “Have you faced any situations with ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence based plagiarism or cheating?” Amongst all teachers 17% said that they had. And we asked a slightly broader question, which was, “Has your school faced any of those?” And about 20% had. Now again, that’s the whole sample of teachers. We have elementary school teachers in there and others that would probably be less likely for things like that to happen. But that’s still, it’s a non-trivial number, but not necessarily overwhelmingly large.

But yeah, John, I’m in agreement with you of allowing some time to pass and for more… Right now, it seems like the first iteration of things that people are doing, it’s like, “I know what we could do. We can cheat on essays.” Or, “I know what I can do. is I can just use AI as fancy Google.” And so there’s an incremental increase in that. And I played around going into ChatGPT and say, “Construct a lesson on whatever, Mesopotamia or something.” Or, “Construct a lesson for fourth graders on the building of the pyramids.” And listen all things considered, it’s not terrible. It actually put something together for you. And I imagine you can refine it and improve it and you can find ways to even make it better.

But as I think AI improves, there’s any number of opportunities that might exist there where you could have, I think thinking of what made my life difficult as a teacher, having an AI assistant that could help manage parent communications where you could give a series of simple commands to it and it could pre-send if you have preset emails and things to manage. When anytime you had to communicate to parents or things, it’s like, “Hey, write a short email letting everyone’s parents know that they need to have $5 for the field trip on Friday”. Or whatever. And then it automatically sends it out to everyone and that sort of thing. Or the following seven people haven’t brought their $5 in and can you send a text message to their parents? Those sorts of productivity gains, that’s not like a massive, oh, schooling will never be the same and everything is different and we’re living in the future. But just the classic things that technology can do to make our lives easier. I feel like leaning more into things like that, what are these practical friction points that teachers have that they can potentially improve from there? But that’s at least what I took away from it.

So fellas, I want to give us… I know we’re going to kind of land the plane here soon. But I want to give any last call here to either of you, was there anything else that we missed you think people need to know about? Obviously we can’t go through all of the slides. Everyone should go to EdChoice.morningconsultintelligence.com and see the full workup of that. They can read Colyn’s great blog post on our blog summarizing some of the key issues. But yeah, anything here as we come to a close. Last hits that people should get.

Colyn Ritter: I think there are two things I want to keep an eye on and as we talk through it here, I realized that I do think some of the teacher pessimism is probably driven by the increased senses of feeling frustrated and feeling overwhelmed. Dissatisfied also increased. Unhappy increased. I think that in order to hopefully see a bounce back of teachers willing to promote the profession, teachers feeling optimistic about K-12 of education as a whole, I think that these numbers, how teachers are feeling are going to have to increase before any of that other stuff increases. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad but I just think that that at the core, teachers are feeling a little more stressed out. They’re feeling frustrated, overwhelmed. They feel less in control than they did. And I think that that is the driver here.

And if that can’t increase, at the very least… And we didn’t talk about it much, I’d push everyone to go check out our report where we do talk about it more. But we asked a question about how students are progressing this year, and teachers are unsurprisingly, they’re feeling less good about their students’ progression. It’s dropped roughly 10 points. We asked them about academic learning, emotional development, and social development, and that has dropped across the board. Now granted, you’ll see on that slide that private school teachers are feeling much better than district school teachers and teachers as a whole when it comes to their students’ progression.

So either I’m very much crossing my fingers, hoping for teachers feeling better or teachers feeling their students are progressing better. Ideally both. We do not live in a perfect world, so I’m not going to get too greedy. I am hoping for one or the other. Yeah, those are the two things I’d keep an eye on.

We also asked really interesting questions about absences, whether they’ve increased with the questions of absenteeism growing. And we also ask questions about academic catch up with the learning loss sustained during COVID. So I’d push people to go look at that too, because I think these are really interesting findings. I’m curious where they go in the future.

Mike McShane: John, any last thoughts before we bring this to a close?

John Kristof: Yeah, definitely check out the report this month. You should obviously read all of them, but this is definitely one to check out because there’s just more eyebrow raising stuff than we have time to talk about today. We have a lot of questions about things like student discipline and students being behind and teachers having to do catch up work to get students up to speed. Things that I think are very relevant to education in a post-COVID world. Just discussions that, at least teachers I know have had.

For example, discussions that a lot of teachers I know have had involve students coming in with more behavioral issues than they’ve had before. And that obviously taking up a lot of classroom time. And we found out that 39% of teachers said that they do think that student misbehaviors in their classes are more frequent. Something to maybe keep in mind 30% of teachers say that they’re doing a lot of catch-up work to get their students on the grade level. And something that backs up some research that Mike has done in his teacher time use survey report where he found that student discipline issues were one of the main drivers of teachers not having enough time to get things done. We found that here where teachers were most likely to identify student discipline issues as the thing that interrupted their class.

Lots of other things. Tutoring interest. Tutoring, compensation. I’m just naming everything at this point. It’s not really a final takeaway. Take a look at the survey. I think there’s going to be something that you’re interested in or you’ve heard people talking about in education reform space, in the practitioner space, in schools and stuff like that. This is a survey that’s going to speak to a lot of national conversations about education right now.

Mike McShane: John, Colyn, thanks a million as always. Everyone who’s listening, you can go to EdChoice.morningconsultintelligence.com to get the full breakdown, to get all of the cross tabs that are there, the original survey, all of the details that are in there. Head to our blog to see Colyn’s summary of it as well.

I also have to give great shoutout. We shouted him out at the beginning of the podcast. We will shout him out again because he is worthy of at least two shoutouts, far more than two shoutouts, but at least two shoutouts today, our fantastic podcast producer Jacob Vincent. He’s moving on to well-deserved greener pastors. He’s just been an absolute star editing all of this work, organizing things. He’s just the best. We will miss him terribly. But thank you, Jacob, for everything that you’ve done for us here doing these podcasts. A multi-talented guy because he does graphic for all seasons. Jacob, thanks a million for everything that you’ve done.

Thanks everybody for listening, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again next time on the next edition of EdChoice Chats.