The challenge of teacher recruitment and retention is on any short list of problems facing public education in the 21st century. The problem is so severe that we often hear about a growing teacher shortage.

Throughout the nation, the major response to the teacher shortage is increasing teacher compensation. In Texas, the state legislature is addressing the teacher shortage by actively considering legislation that would have the state, rather than local school districts, pay for teacher health benefits. According to the recent report of the Select Committee on Teacher Health Insurance, such a change is likely to cost the state over $3 billion per year.

A teacher survey I administered in the Spring of 1999 suggests that a state health insurance initiative will have little impact in meeting our challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers. The survey indicates that creating substantially improved work environments for our public school teachers is far more important than financial compensation.

The survey was sent to high school coordinators in mathematics, English, sciences, and social studies. This focused the survey on more experienced teachers. The public high school teachers who responded had an average of 22 years in teaching. The private school teachers averaged 15 years.

For high school teachers in Texas urban and suburban public schools, just 17% of the teachers believed the trend of teacher morale in their schools was improving. On the other hand, 61% of the public school teachers saw worsening morale in their schools. For private high school teachers, the corresponding numbers were 31% improving and 37% worsening.

The survey also inquired about reasons for declining teacher morale. Just 14% of public school teachers pointed to “insufficient financial compensation” as the main reason for declining teacher morale-compared to 30% noting this reason for private schools. Far more important for teachers in public schools were “student attitudes and behavior” at 40% and “treatment by administrators” at 32%.

The two leading teacher morale problems in public schools are closely related. The lack of administrative support for teachers plays an important role in student behavior problems. Consider these comments by Texas public school teachers:

“Most of the teachers feel that if we had a strong, organized, discipline-minded leader, we could then begin to deal with student attitudes.”

“There are no serious consequences for bad behavior, vulgar language, rude treatment of teachers by students, or even hitting a teacher. Our teachers feel we have lost control over our student body.”

“We once had a school with high standards, discipline, and learning. Our current superintendent has destroyed almost all aspects of our school learning, discipline, communication, and accountability.”

“My community and administration like high academic achievement but they don’t like what it takes to get it. Discipline has gone down due to the administration not following through.”

“If principals do their job, teachers work harder to do their job and students are held accountable. If a principal doesn’t do his job, there is usually low teacher morale and student behavior is usually worse.”

The survey supports the conclusion that the environments our public school teachers work in have important deficiencies. Moreover, these environments are getting worse. Without substantial improvement in the work environments for our dedicated Texas teachers, increased compensation-whether pay or health insurance-will bring little benefit to the state’s education system.

The main responsibility for improving school environments rests with local school districts and communities. However, there could be a role for state government. Perhaps the state should implement a new statewide test to allow teachers to register their attitudes and concerns. We might call the test the Texas Assessment of Teacher Attitudes, or TAPA.

Texas education policy ultimately holds teachers accountable for improving TAAS scores. The time has come to measure the extent to which administrators are supporting or backing up our teachers. We use TAAS to assess teacher performance and to encourage improvement. Let’s use TAPA to do the same for school administrators. Parents, taxpayers, and elected officials would have as much concern for a school’s TAPA as its TAAS rating.

(The title of the report is Teacher Attitudes in Texas Public and Private High Schools. The entire report, which includes more eye-opening teacher comments on a variety of issues, is available in the Research & Reports section of this website, in the Education-Teacher sub-sections).

John Pisciotta is an Associate Professor of Economics at Baylor University, and a Senior Fellow of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.