Why Public School Teachers Burn Out

Teachers are victims of the dysfunctional government school system just as much as students. In a new Friedman Foundation study, my colleague Christian D'Andrea and I use federal data to document the poor working conditions for teachers in public schools, and the superior teaching environment in private schools.

Reformers normally focus on the mediocre results we get from the government education monopoly -- the millions of children who lose their futures because we entrust their schooling to a bureaucracy with little incentive to provide good services. But you aren't likely to get better learning until you get better teaching, and reformers would be wise to pay more attention to how the government monopoly warps the teaching profession.

In our study, we use data from a huge federal survey to compare working conditions for public and private school teachers. Public school teachers have lower job satisfaction, less autonomy, less influence over school policy, less ability to keep order, less support from administrators and peers, and less safety. Just about the only thing they have more of is burnout.

Public school teachers lack autonomy and influence. They are much less likely to have "a great deal of control" over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (32 percent v. 53 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (36 percent v. 60 percent). And they are much less likely to have "a great deal of influence" on performance standards for students (18 percent v. 40 percent) and curriculum (22 percent v. 47 percent).

They get less support from administrators. They are much less likely to strongly agree that they have all the textbooks and supplies they need (41 percent v. 67 percent) and are less likely to agree that they get all the support they need to teach students with special needs (64 percent v. 72 percent). This in spite of the fact that public schools get nearly $11,000 per student and private schools charge an average tuition of only $6,600. They are less likely to strongly agree that their principals clearly communicate what kind of school they want (56 percent v. 69 percent) and recognize staff who do a good job (33 percent v. 45 percent). And they are less likely to strongly agree that their principals back them up when they need support for disciplining students (55 percent v. 68 percent).

They also get less support from peers. Public school teachers are much less likely to strongly agree that there is a great deal of cooperation between staff members (41 percent v. 60 percent), that their colleagues share their values and understanding of the core mission of the school (38 percent v. 63 percent), and that their fellow teachers consistently enforce school rules (29 percent v. 42 percent).