States Scrutinize Teacher Working Conditions

By Linda Jacobson — March 29, 2005 9 min read
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Access to reliable technology. Help from classroom aides. Out-of-classroom duties. Planning time with colleagues. Administrator accessibility. All those working conditions and more play a vital part in whether good teachers feel sufficiently satisfied to stay in their schools.

Now, policymakers are beginning to gather evidence on just how much those details matter.

And not just for the sake of the teacher. Findings from two recent surveys are being linked with student-performance data in ways that allow educators to determine which aspects of teachers’ jobs make the most difference in achievement.

The surveys, “Teacher Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions,” and, “Listening to the Experts,” are available from The Southeast Center For Teaching Quality. ()

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention on having “highly qualified” teachers in the classroom, said Eric Hirsch, the vice president of policy and partnerships at the Southeastern Center for Teaching Quality, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based organization that conducted the surveys of teachers and administrators in North Carolina and South Carolina.

“But it’s not enough,” he said, “to just take a highly qualified teacher and put them in a classroom and in a school that does not provide them with the working conditions that allow them to be successful.”

While some common themes and findings emerge from both reports, what’s most groundbreaking about the work, Mr. Hirsch said, is that it gives state, district, and building-level school leaders data on individual schools and a specific place to start tackling those issues that matter the most to teachers.

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Teachers’ Tool Kit

“The power of the initiative is that we’re not just talking aggregate data anymore,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Schools can base decisions on what their teaching corps says.”

One of the most frustrating problems that Kenneth Russell, a social studies teacher at Dalton High School in Dalton, Ga., faces is the lag in time to get computer technical support.

“Our technology people are overextended,” he said, noting that technicians are only on site a couple of days a week. “Of course, things don’t break down on that particular day. That kind of situation does affect your stress level and your morale.”

Student Learning

In North Carolina, 30,000 teachers and 4,000 principals and other administrators responded to the online survey. And in South Carolina, 15,200 educators responded, about 13,500 of them teachers.

Similar work is also under way in Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia.

The National Education Association, which contributed $20,000 to the center for the work, would like to see every state ask its teachers to weigh in on their working conditions, as those states are doing.

“I can’t imagine why any state would not utilize this system, and we have the network to take this nationwide,” said John Wilson, the executive director of the 2.7 million-member union. “This is another piece of data that will cause us to improve student achievement.”

While the issues that matter to teachers—whether it’s technology, or planning time, or extracurricular duties—differ, the surveys provide some overall indications of what is important to most teachers, no matter where they work.

In both North Carolina and South Carolina, the researchers found that working conditions are important predictors of whether students are learning.

Teachers said that time for teaching, planning, paperwork, and empowerment contributed the most to student performance.

Melissa E. Bartlett, an 8th grade language arts teacher at Lakeshore Middle School in the 18,600-student Iredell-Statesville school district in North Carolina, said she thinks not having enough time is a universal problem for teachers, whether they work in a high- or a low-achieving school.

“Time is an equal problem. It’s bad everywhere,” she said on a recent evening in which she had a “bag of papers” to grade. “It never ends.”

Oddly enough, however, the researchers found that time actually did not have a significant relationship to student achievement.

The surveys do show a strong connection between professional development and a school’s “adequate yearly progress,” the annual measure of student achievement required under the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind law. The quality of facilities and resources was also a strong predictor of AYP status.

Favorable working conditions also contribute to teacher retention. Teachers in both states overwhelmingly said that having a collegial atmosphere was the most important factor in deciding whether to stay in their schools or look elsewhere.

In North Carolina, the survey revealed different perceptions from teachers and administrators on the same issue.

For instance, on a 1-to-5 scale—with 1 being “strongly disagree” and 5 being “strongly agree”—the average teacher rating was 2.72 on the statement that they were “protected from duties that interfere with their essential role of educating students.” On the same statement, the average rating from principals was 3.8.

Such a finding, Mr. Hirsch said, could have a big effect on whether anything is actually done to address such concerns. “If principals don’t see a problem, where is the impetus to reform?” he said.

In contrast, teachers and principals in South Carolina were pretty much in agreement on all the issues, although the low response rate from principals raises questions about how representative the responses were.

Some teachers also say that while they want flexibility in the classroom, it’s also important to them that their administrators see what they’re doing.

“Teachers must be trusted and supported by their administration,” said Ron Matthews, an 8th grade mathematics teacher at the 590-student Statesville Middle School in Statesville, N.C. “Likewise, the administration needs to know, by being present, what is happening in the classrooms.”

Mr. Russell, the Georgia social studies teacher, said that administrators’ absence from campus is a problem in his school as well. “We don’t see them an awful lot because the central office keeps them in meetings,” he said.

Not About Pay

Regardless of teachers’ backgrounds—white or African-American, male or female, from a traditional school of education or an alternative-preparation program—they tend to view working conditions the same way, the surveys show.

Elementary teachers, though, are generally more positive about their working environments than those who teach at the secondary level—an outcome that Mr. Hirsch largely attributes to the more collegial atmosphere in what tend to be smaller elementary schools.

The researchers also found that working conditions have ripple effects: When one area is rated highly, the rest tend to be strong as well. If leadership is strong, say, so is professional development.

The Southeastern Center for Teaching Quality, a private, nonprofit research and policy-development center subsidized by several foundations and corporations, intentionally omitted questions about pay and benefits. Instead, the surveys were designed to focus on issues over which individual schools have some control, and salary schedules are usually not among them.

“One of the good things about not including salary is that it focuses the discussion more on teaching and learning,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Salary does matter, but it would be too easy to let salary overwhelm the data.”

Added Thomas Blanford, the associate director of the teacher-quality department at the NEA: “We sort of facetiously say, ‘If you’re not going to pay teachers a lot of money, they better love their jobs.’ ”

In part, the findings confirm earlier studies by Richard M. Ingersoll, an associate education professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He found that it takes both higher wages and such features as opportunities for advancement and the presence of professional communities to keep teachers.

A ‘Local Context’

Until now, the best window into what teachers felt about their jobs and what kept them in the schools where they worked has been the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey, which began in the mid-1980s and was last administered during the 2003-04 school year.

But national surveys don’t provide districts and principals with feedback on what needs to be addressed in their own schools, say those involved in the new surveys.

“You can get large-scale surveys, but until you see it in your local context, it doesn’t have as much meaning,” said Patricia Paterson, the director of teacher-quality initiatives for the board of regents of the University System of Georgia.

Ms. Bartlett, the language arts teacher in North Carolina’s Iredell-Statesville district, agreed. “I think data will make things more transparent,” she said. “We always thought, ‘Well my God, I don’t have enough time.’ The impact of this is that it actually quantifies what we teachers intuitively already knew.”

The Georgia survey, which is being underwritten by an $80,000 grant from the BellSouth Foundation in Atlanta, has been piloted in 11 districts, and results will be available next month.

To make the findings resonate beyond the school buildings, each district has formed a partnership with a local chamber of commerce, which will be involved in having community-level discussions of the results and drafting a plan to address the concerns.

“This is not just for the school districts to deal with,” Ms. Paterson said.

In North Carolina, Gov. Michael F. Easley has already begun responding to the results by recognizing what he calls “Real DEAL” schools, or those with “dedicated educators, administrators, and learners” that rank high on both student-performance measures and working conditions.

And in his 2005-07 biennial budget, the Democrat is asking for $215,000 in the first year and $290,000 in the second to continue the survey and analysis. Also in his request is $2 million for “custom professional development,” based on the survey results, for the 16 districts that are part of the state’s school finance lawsuit.

Political support is necessary if working-conditions surveys are going to become more than just another set of reports, said Mr. Wilson, the NEA executive director, who came to that job from the union’s North Carolina affiliate.

“I think it would have sat on the shelf had [Gov. Easley] not provided his voice,” he said.

A few districts in North Carolina are also moving forward with initiatives on their own. In the Iredell-Statesville district, north of Charlotte, the “teachers of the year” from every school were asked to participate in a forum to review the data from their own schools and then work on suggestions for fixing problem areas.

Issues that rose to the top of the list included poor air quality in older buildings, a reduction in class size without losing teaching assistants, and higher visibility of central-office personnel in the schools.

Teachers also wanted staff development to occur during school hours—and trained substitutes to stand in for them.

“If they are gone during the day, they don’t want babysitters,” said Alvera Lesane, the director of staff development for the 18,500-student district.

Now that the data are becoming available, Mr. Hirsch and others say district and school leaders have a responsibility to take action.

“There’s nothing worse,” Mr. Hirsch said, “than asking teachers what they think and then not doing anything about it.”


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