Work Conditions In Some Schools Said ‘Intolerable’

By Lynn Olson — September 28, 1989 9 min read

Many urban teachers struggle with inadequate resources, substandard facilities, and a lack of support that would “not be tolerated in other professions,” according to a study to be released this week.

The 161-page report, “Working in Urban Schools,” was prepared by the nonprofit Institute for Educational Leadership. It was based on more than 400 interviews with teachers, principals, and administrators in five school systems: Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Rochester, N.Y.

According to Thomas B. Corcoran, a senior researcher at iel who co-authored the report with Lisa J. Walker and J. Lynne White, the study “shows rather dramatically that working conditions have real effects on teachers and therefore, one can hypothesize, on kids.”

Of the 31 elementary, middle, and high schools sampled in the study, Mr. Corcoran said, about one-third had good working conditions and teachers reported high morale and a sense of accomplishment.

In another third, “people were coping,” according to Mr. Corcoran. “Morale was described as poor to mediocre, and people were struggling to do the best they could under varying conditions.”

And in a final third of the schools, he said, working conditions were so poor that they had “very powerful negative effects,” including higher teacher absenteeism, low morale, low job satisfaction, and “a lot of conflict and tension in the building.”

According to the report’s authors, their findings confirm the need for the type of long-term school “restructuring” described in the Carnegie report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century.

But such “massive” changes should not overshadow the need for more short-term, immediate solutions, they said.

“If you have schools where people lack basic things like textbooks and paper--just the basic materials that they need to carry out instruction,” said Mr. Corcoran, “then proposals to involve them in decisionmaking and so on may seem less immediate than ‘How do I work with the 32 kids that are in my 3rd grade?”’

According to the report, a productive work environment for teachers includes: good physical conditions, supportive administrative leadership, the chance to work collaboratively, and opportunities to influence school policy as well as curriculum and instruction.

“There really seems to be a kind of gestalt that exists in the schools that have the most positive environments,” Mr. Corcoran stated. “It’s where you have those series of things together ... that you get clearly a pattern of very positive effects on teachers.”

‘Substandard’ Conditions

The report reserved some of its harshest criticism for the physical conditions of some urban schools, which it described as “substandard, even in newer buildings.”

It attributed this problem primarily to a “serious lack” of repairs and preventive maintenance.

Respondents reported some type of maintenance problem in 20 of the 31 schools, including: daily cleanliness, inadequate custodial staffs, neglect of needed repairs, and the lengthy process of repair work.

In addition, 16 of the 31 schools reported space problems, centered on the lack of classrooms. In 10 of these schools, teachers who did not have classrooms of their own “floated” from room to room, sometimes wheeling their materials around on carts.

Surprisingly, safety was not as big an issue as the researchers had expected. Safety and security problems were reported in only 25 percent of the schools, all of which were in inner-city, low-income neighborhoods.

‘Resources Matter’

In addition to substandard physical facilities, teachers and administrators in 25 of the 31 schools rated resources as less than adequate, and none of the schools were rated as “good.”

Almost all schools identified insufficient staffing as a problem; they cited particularly the need for more counselors, social workers, and others who could help deal with students’ emotional problems and with discipline.

Teachers also reported a lack of basic supplies, such as textbooks, toilet paper, and blackboards. In addition, many teachers found the process for distributing supplies “demeaning and unprofessional.”

Almost half of the schools also reported limited availability or access to computers, copiers, telephones, and other equipment.

“Resources really matter,” said Mr. Corcoran. “When you suffer4from real scarcity, everybody is so busy struggling and coping, it’s just very difficult to create a decent teaching environment.”

Conflicting Values

Teachers also reported a clash between the attitudes and behavior of students and the values inherent in an academic setting.

The dominant issue was poor student discipline, which staffs in 24 of the 31 schools and in all five districts reported as a serious problem.

Other frequently mentioned concerns were negative student attitudes toward school, poor student attendance, low student motivation, lack of parental support, and conflicts between schooling and the cultural backgrounds of students’ families.

Although many teachers wanted more positive relations with their students, they said such efforts were hampered by disciplinary problems, large class sizes, a lack of time for individual work, busing policies that created long distances between home and school, and a lack of student participation in extracurricular activities.

For the most part, teachers described their relationship with students in terms of the negative effect it had on their work. A minority mentioned positive effects, such as “enjoying the students” or “getting satisfaction from working with them.”

These positive attitudes were more likely to be expressed by elementary teachers and those working in smaller schools.

Teachers complained, in particular, about the lack of parental and administrative support to help with problem students. And many of them wanted tougher policies and programs to remove chronic offenders from the classroom.

In addition, some educators reported that low expectations on the part of teachers contributed to low student motivation and to attendance and discipline problems.

Concluded one teacher: “You go home tired most days. Sometimes you feel like the Gestapo--you have to repeat a lot, can’t back down, have to establish authority. ... There seems to be a conflict between the values of the home and those of the school.”

Loss of Control

The report also examined teachers’ autonomy in the workplace, their opportunities to influence school policy and to work collaboratively, the quality of supervision and of professional-development programs, and the existence of rewards and recognition for teachers.

Among its findings:

Teachers reported moderate to high discretion over how they taught, but an increasing loss of control over what they taught, particularly as districts moved to implement standardized curricula8and stronger monitoring.

Testing was viewed by both teachers and administrators in all five districts as a major influence over the curriculum and a threat to professional authority.

Teachers reported less influence over school policy decisions and few chances to work collaboratively.

Not surprisingly, school administrators said teachers had more influence than did the teachers themselves. Seventy-two percent of the administrators interviewed said teachers had moderate to high influence over school policies, compared with only 45 percent of the teachers.

In schools where teachers worked in teams, with joint planning time and frequent meetings with the principal, they reported a greater sense of control over the decisions affecting them.

Both teachers and administrators complained about the quality of staff supervision in schools. Administrators felt they had little time to commit to it and were burdened by the process. Teachers said the activity was of little use to them. This was true, even though three of the five districts recently had introduced new evaluation systems, developed jointly with the teachers’ unions.

Of the 31 schools, 18 gave ratings of “less than adequate” to professional-development activities.

Time for inservice training was a problem in all five districts. Staff-development funds also were lacking and were mainly controlled at the district level.

Teachers were more likely to rate training experiences positively when they had a hand in the planning process, the training was offered at the school site, and teachers were used as workshop leaders.

Rewards for teaching were rated as inadequate by teachers in 17 of the 31 schools, and inadequate to barely adequate in 11 schools.

There was virtually no evidence in most of the schools of any formal reward system outside of the normal paycheck, the study found.

The lack of teacher recognition was even more apparent at the district level. In two-thirds of the schools studied, respondents said they were not aware of any district, union, or community recognition for teachers.

Teachers almost unanimously cited the importance of administrative leadership in shaping their work.

Competent principals were able to secure additional resources, see that repairs were made, motivate teachers, and encourage collegiality. Weak principals were unable to advocate for their schools, get around rules and bureaucracy, or keep control of their buildings.

Given the importance of the principal’s role, the report advocated that districts pay more attention to the use of performance-based criteria for both the selection and evaluael10ltion of school administrators.

Low Marks for Central Office

The researchers noted that most of the problems teachers complained about required district-level solutions and leadership.

But in general, they found, teachers held low opinions of district leaders and complained that the central office did not respect them.

In addition, the study reported a steady drift of authority away from schools to the district office, which it attributed primarily to collective bargaining and government regulations.

Even in those districts that had instituted site-based management and other efforts to give schools more autonomy, the researchers found, teachers perceived these changes to be top-down, constantly changing, and not designed to assist them.

“The district people would say that they were doing a number of things to try to address working conditions and to improve schools,” Mr. Corcoran said. “However, in all these districts several things were true. One is that they suffered from resource scarcity, which had led to disputes or conflicts with the unions over salaries” and affected relationships over time.

Some board members and school administrators also took teachers for granted, he said. “They tended to see them as an adversary to deal with across the bargaining table, rather than the major resource that the organization has.”

In addition, while the districts had undertaken many reform initiatives, he said, they “frequently failed to follow up and ensure that those initiatives were implemented effectively or thoroughly.”

“In some cases,” Mr. Corcoran noted, “there were so many initiatives that teachers felt ... as though something new were coming out every day.”

He attributed many of the problems of urban schools to “societal neglect” of urban areas in general. “In a sense,” both teachers and administrators are “victims of a larger neglect of the urban population,” he said.

Copies of the report, “Working in Urban Schools,” may be obtained for $12 each by writing: Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Work Conditions In Some Schools Said ‘Intolerable’