This year’s edition of the annual survey conducted by Metlife Survey of the American Teacher found that 82% of American teachers were either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with their career choice. The media, however, chose to concentrate on the downside – pointing out that teacher dissatisfaction numbers which came in at 17% were the highest they have been in 25 years.
After years of budget cuts and increasingly acrimonious education reform debate, the fact that more than 8 in 10 teachers still feel that they made the right choice in their career is momentous news. According to Real Clear Politics, the underlying reasons for such high level of satisfaction are obvious: by working with children and planting the seeds of the country’s future economic prosperity, the teachers can – and usually do – take comfort in the fact that they are doing very meaningful work.
Still, the high dissatisfaction numbers are a concern, and one that education and political leaders seized on immediately by releasing statements condemning policies that caused such a dramatic fall.
Except, it appears that the dramatic fall is nothing but an after-effect of the less-than-rigorous methodology employed by Metlife in the survey.
The main reason is that the much-touted data point about teacher satisfaction is, to put it politely, fundamentally flawed. Metlife asks about job satisfaction in different ways in different years. In 2008 and 2009 they asked teachers, “How satisfied would you say you are with teaching as a career?” The survey didn’t ask about satisfaction in 2010, but in 2011 and 2012 teachers were asked, “How satisfied would you say you are with your job as a teacher in the public schools?” Veteran pollster and polling expert Mark Blumenthal, who is now the polling editor for The Huffington Post, says they are different questions and that “presenting the two questions on a single trend line is questionable.” He’s being polite, too. What Metlife did would be akin to asking a soldier on a tough deployment how he likes his job vs. asking him how he likes his career in the armed forces — and claiming that it was the same question.
Although in conversation with Andrew Rotherham, Dana Markow, who heads the Metlife polling for Harris Interactive admitted that the change in wording might have contributed to the “dramatic fall,” she still defended the methodology.
This isn’t the first time Metlife has tinkered with the wording in a similar way. Surveys in 1985 and 1986 did a similar switch from “career” to “job” and the level of satisfaction subsequently dropped.
But in 1985 and 1986, the question was also changed — again from asking about career to asking about job. What happened? Those saying they were “very satisfied” fell 11 points. It’s reasonable to infer, both as a matter of survey methodology and also common sense, that the wording does matter.