From the Field

Research Notes: The Rise and Fall of the Teaching Profession

The past few years have thrust the teaching profession into the spotlight, as the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery greatly impacted both views on teachers and the experiences of teachers themselves. While current news coverage suggests growing levels of teacher dissatisfaction and burnout, it is hard to interpret this information in isolation.

In a new working paper from the Annenberg Institute, researchers Matthew A. Kraft from Brown University and Melissa Arnold Lyon from SUNY University at Albany examine the state of the K-12 teaching profession over the past 50 years to place its current state in historical context.

Kraft and Lyon use nationally representative data to assess changes over time in professional prestige, interest among students, preparation for entry, and job satisfaction. Across every measure, the researchers find that the overall wellbeing of the teaching profession is at or near its lowest levels in 50 years. They also find that declines in the teaching profession began about a decade ago, suggesting that the pandemic merely compounded existing issues in the profession rather than initiating them.

Kraft and Lyon also explore eight factors that may contribute to changes in the state of the teaching profession over time: education funding levels, compensation, outside labor market opportunities, union participation, barriers to entry, working conditions, accountability and autonomy on the job, and school shootings. The researchers find evidence that changes in real wages explain the sharp declines observed in the teaching profession in the 1970s followed by a swift recovery in the 1980s. Meanwhile, they find that relative wage declines, accountability reforms, perceived losses of job security and professional autonomy, and the decreasing influence of unions likely contributed to declines over the past decade.

This paper has large implications for both research and policy. By looking to the past, this paper identifies the teaching profession’s current low point as the worst in 50 years while providing optimism regarding its recovery, as the teaching profession successfully rebounded from previous historical lows.