Are New Middle and High School Teachers Being Cast Adrift?

First in Series of Reports on First-Year Teachers Shows Major Differences Between Elementary and Secondary Teachers on How Long They Plan to Teach and How Much Their Students Are Learning


Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality today released research indicating that new high school and middle school teachers, challenged by their teen-aged students, are much more concerned about administrative support, more frustrated by student motivation and behavior, less likely to see teaching as a lifelong career choice and less likely to believe that all students can achieve in school than new teachers in elementary schools.

The series, Lessons Learned: New Teachers Talk About Their Jobs, Challenges and Long-Term Plans, is based on a nationwide survey of first-year teachers and aims to help leaders in education and government understand more about the quality of current teacher education and the on-the-job support and mentoring for new teachers. Issue No. 1: The Special Challenges of New Teachers in High Schools and Middle Schools provides ample evidence that new teachers in middle and high school feel most vulnerable to challenging teaching conditions.

The full report and complete questionnaire are available online at:

The research will be discussed on a live web cast on organized by NCCTQ on Thursday, October 11, 2007 34:30 p.m. (Eastern Time). Registration and more information about the web discussion is at this link:

According to the survey, compared to new elementary school teachers, new high school and middle school teachers are: -Less likely to say that teaching is exactly what they want to be doing

-More likely to report frustrations with student motivation and behavior

-More likely to be concerned about lack of administrative support in their schools

-Less likely to believe that good teachers can lead all students to learn

-Less likely to say they regard teaching as a long-term career choice

-More likely to say that their preparation was too theoretical and did not focus enough on practical classroom issues

"We all know that kids become a handful in the teen years, so we shouldnt be surprised that teaching kids this age is especially challenging," said Public Agenda Executive Vice President and Director of Education Insights Jean Johnson. "What's more worrying is the number of brand new teachers who seem to have been left dangling in challenging new jobs. These new high school and middle school teachers are more likely to say their training wasnt practical enough, and less likely to say they get good advice from colleagues once theyre on the job."

Sabrina Laine, Director of NCCTQ which commissioned and helped to design the research said, This research tells us that we need to pay substantially more attention to the distinctive issues new high school and middle school teachers face. Effective training, supportive leadership, and motivation are essential for teachers of all students, but clearly there are special challenges at the secondary level that the field is not adequately addressing.

REL Midwest, part of a federally funded network of 10 regional educational laboratories, gave instrumental aid in the questionnaire design and analysis of the research. To Steve Cantrell, Director of REL-Midwest, the results have significant implications for teacher education practices in the Midwest and nationwide: We've focused a lot on secondary teachers' subject preparation, but this study reveals that the real pain point for new teachers is students' lack of motivation and discipline. New teachers need effective strategies in these areas.


It may be that many of those who pursue teaching in middle and high schools versus those who chose to teach in elementary schools have different motivations from the start. The new high school and middle school teachers are less likely to say that teaching is something theyve wanted to do for a long time (52 percent for secondary teachers versus 68 percent for elementary teachers) and they are less likely to strongly agree that its what they really want to be doing now (47 percent versus 61 percent).

What does get secondary teachers jazzed? Most new teachers say that the idea of teaching subjects they love and helping underprivileged students are more important reasons for choosing the profession than practical advantages such as summers off and job security. But for the new high school teachers, teaching a subject they love is an even more important factor.


New middle and high school teachers are more likely to criticize their training for putting too much emphasis on theory compared to the practical demands of the classroom. More than half (53 percent) of new high school teachers say their preparation was too theoretical, while just 40 percent of new elementary teachers say this.

Majorities of all new teachers voice a general level of satisfaction with their administrators and fellow teachers, but new high school and middle school teachers are less satisfied. The differences are especially notable in the teachers assessments on the advice they get from other teachers and mentors. Just a quarter of new high school teachers (26 percent) say they get excellent advice on lesson plans and teaching techniques compared to 39 percent of elementary school teachers. There is also a 10-point difference on the advice they get about handling unmotivated students 31 percent of high school teachers say they get excellent advice and 41 percent of grade school teachers say they get excellent advice on this.


For those concerned about teachers ability to reach out to students of all backgrounds, perhaps the most disconcerting finding in the research is the very striking difference among the secondary school teachers on whether disadvantaged students can learn. While the vast majority of elementary teachers (80 percent) say that good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents, significantly fewer (62 percent) of new secondary school teachers say this.

Fifty-one percent of new high school and middle school teachers (compared to a 25 percent of elementary teachers) say that too many unmotivated students just going through the motions is a major drawback to teaching. New secondary school teachers are also somewhat more likely (41 percent) than elementary school teachers (33 percent) to consider too many kids with discipline and behavior issues a major drawback to teaching.


For strong majorities of the new teachers, regardless of their grade level, two items topped their list of recommendations for improving the profession overall. The first is reducing class sizes, and the second is giving teachers better preparation to individualize teaching in a diverse classroom. Public Agendas surveys of teachers overall show a similar pattern even teachers with more experience rank reducing class size as their top priority for improving education.

How important is salary? New teachers are concerned about salary and lack of opportunity for growth, with a majority (78 percent) seeing it as either a major or minor drawback of the profession. But only a third of new teachers consider salary a major drawback to their profession, and this concern ranks well below issues such as unmotivated students, testing and classroom discipline problems. More than two-thirds of new teachers (68 percent) say it is possible for a teacher to make a decent living; new teachers overwhelmingly would choose better working conditions over higher salaries; and just 13 percent say merit pay and sanctions for student performance would be a very effective way to improve the profession.


The findings in Issue 1 of Lessons Learned: New Teachers Talk About Their Jobs, Their Challenges and Their Long-Term Plans are based a national survey of 641 first-year teachers. Interviews were conducted between March 12 and April 23, 2007. It included 111 items covering issues related to teacher training, recruitment, professional development and retention. The study explored why new teachers come into the profession, what their expectations are and what factors contribute to their desire to either stay in teaching or leaving it. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points; it is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups. Selected survey results can be found at

The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality is the premier national resource to which the regional comprehensive assistance centers, states, and other education stakeholders turn for strengthening the quality of teachingespecially in high-poverty, low-performing, and hard-to-staff schoolsand for finding guidance in addressing specific needs, thereby ensuring highly qualified teachers are serving students with special needs. NCCTQ, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is a collaborative effort of Education Commission of the States, ETS, Learning Point Associates, and Vanderbilt University.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

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