Government, Higher Education, and Human Resources

Survey rips into education

Budget cuts, pay freezes leave teachers feeling undervalued, underappreciated.

September 23, 2016
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Years of budget cuts, pay freezes and other statewide cost-cutting measures at schools throughout Michigan have schoolteachers feeling undervalued and underappreciated, according to a joint survey from the Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

Nearly 11,000 educators, pulled from MEA or AFT Michigan members, completed anonymous online surveys collected over a weeklong period this past spring. Educators included retired and active pre-K-12 teachers to support staff, higher education faculty and pre-K-12 support staff.

Almost 80 percent of the surveyed teachers indicated they felt undercompensated and just 12.2 percent felt they would be able to comfortably retire.

MEA president Steven Cook and AFT Michigan president David Hecker presented the survey results in a joint teleconference in which they were highly critical of the policies and legislation coming from Lansing.

“This survey is an indictment of toxic education policies and a toxic attitude toward those who educate our kids,” Cook said.

Nearly 43 percent of the school employees who responded said their unit had to accept concessionary contracts in the past five years to avoid losing jobs, and comments left by educators paint an even drearier picture.

One respondent said they are so afraid of being fired, “that I cannot risk the complications brought on by a lesson designed to teach critical thinking.”

In addition to compensation, which was listed as the top concern by 33.65 percent of respondents, educators also said too much standardized testing (18.06 percent) and evaluations (15.92 percent) were primary concerns in the field.

Educators were asked to rank the quality of support in implementing state educational standards and curriculum on a one to five scale. The majority of teachers, 43.4 percent, said support was average, while 40.3 percent said the quality of support was below average or poor.

“We need to bring both consistency and sanity to our standardized testing,” Hecker said.

Educators also were critical of the statewide evaluation process of educators, with one respondent noting evaluations had “made teaching a version of the Hunger Games.”

Hecker said the passage of Public Act 173 last November, intended to clarify policies regarding statewide education evaluations, has yet to be felt across districts statewide, and the survey results reflect that.

On a one to five scale, 60.3 percent of educators said the recent changes to the evaluation system have had a somewhat negative or negative impact on their teaching, while just 6.6 percent said the changes have been somewhat positive or positive.

“Implementation of evaluation systems continues to be inconsistent at the very best and, in many cases, more about punishing teachers than improving their professional practice,” Hecker said.

State Rep. Tom Hooker (R-Byron Center), who serves on the House Education Committee, said he sees a lot of truths reflected in the survey results. A retired teacher of 37 years, Hooker said increased reliance on standardized testing forces educators to teach to a test rather than a curriculum in the best interest of the students, and teacher evaluations only provide a quick, oft inaccurate snapshot of the teacher in question.

However, Hooker argued some of the concerns outlined — such as compensation and feasibility of retirement — while valid, were unavoidable consequences of an undermined education system.

“I understand the frustration,” he said. “There have been cutbacks done to compensation, but part of it is, unfortunately, our education retirement systems and health care retirement systems have been way underfunded. And if we did nothing, they wouldn’t exist.”

Educators also were asked about the safety and conditions of their schools, with 57.2 percent noting their building had unreliable heating and cooling, 39 percent reporting damaged walls and ceilings, 34.8 percent said their school had poor air quality and 32.1 percent said rodents and insects were prevalent in the building.

Cook said morale surrounding education in Michigan is “as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” and said teaching no longer is an attractive profession for upcoming teachers.

Hecker was more direct in his criticism of state legislators, calling for a change in leadership and makeup of the House of Representatives this November.

“While a lot of politicians don’t respect teachers, the general public has the highest regard for teachers and support staff in our schools,” Hecker said. “And I think as people are making their decisions on who should lead this state, who should be the policymakers, it’s good for them to read about the feelings and the beliefs and the experiences of the men and women they respect so much who educate their kids.”

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