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Teacher Polls Look to Sway Policymakers

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 30, 2010 7 min read

Perhaps at no other time in the history of American education has there been more publicly available information about what teachers think about their profession, their students, and the conditions under which they work.

As advocates pore over the results of teacher surveys being conducted nationally, at the state level, and even at individual schools, observers are beginning to ask questions about how the information can be used to inform policies to improve teachers’ working conditions and promote teacher and leadership effectiveness.

“Teachers make up the bulk of the staffing in districts and schools, and they are the anchor of the profession. It seems to us their voices ought to really count,” said Vicki L. Phillips, the director of education initiatives at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which this month released the results of a survey of some 40,000 teachers, commissioned in partnership with Scholastic Inc.

In an apparent nod to the importance of hearing directly from teachers, the Obama administration has proposed in its blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that states collect and report information on a variety of school factors, including teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions and whether there is a pattern of teacher absenteeism indicative of the cultural norms of those schools.

“For a while, we’ve been ramping up accountability without really getting into what’s going on in the school,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst for the Center on American Progress, a Washington think tank, who has supported efforts to generate more school-level data. “We can do better than stand on the outside of the black box and look at a few numbers spit out by the annual tests, and see what rewards and sanctions make sense.”

Is Anybody Listening?

At its heart, the matter concerns the complicated question of whether classroom teachers’ views are taken into consideration in policymaking. At the very least, the surveys released over the past three months are generating new data points upon which to draw.

Voices From the Classroom

“MetLife Survey of the American Teacher”

• MetLife

• First conducted in 1984, most recent iteration in 2009

• National survey of 1,000 K-12 public school teachers and 500 K-12 principals

“Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools”

• Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Scholastic Inc.

• Conducted in 2009

• National survey of 40,000 K-12 teachers

“Retaining Teacher Talent”

• Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates

• Conducted in 2009

• National survey of 900 K-12 teachers

“Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey”

• Center for Teacher Quality and the New Teacher Center

• Conducted in North Carolina since 2002; more than 27 iterations of the survey have taken place in 15 states

• State-level surveys of teachers; size varies depending on state’s population and participation rate

Those surveys include the most recent iteration of the venerable MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which has been conducted annually since 1984; a three-part study released by Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates; and the Gates-Scholastic measure, billed as the largest-ever survey of teachers in the United States.

In addition, the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based New Teacher Center’s “Teaching and Learning Conditions” survey provides detailed information on the conditions teachers experience in individual schools, a step beyond national and state data.

Despite their differing sample sizes and specific questions, the surveys’ findings about what teachers say they need to be successful are remarkably consistent. Some of the top findings: Teachers report that the quality of their schools’ leadership, a say in school decisionmaking, and opportunities to work with their peers affect their own capacity as educators.

Still, it is not as clear how influential such survey results have been in policymaking. Part of the reason could be that most surveys provide snapshots of teachers’ perceptions, rather than longitudinal data.

Of the major national surveys, MetLife’s is the only one that occasionally repeats a question from a previous year. But the bulk of questions are changed every year to provide a deeper look at specific areas of education, explained Dana Markow, the vice president of youth and education research for Harris Interactive Inc., which conducted the survey for MetLife.

Some influential players in the education policy arena are beginning to pay closer attention.

The National Education Association and its independent foundation are using school-climate surveys to help tailor their initiatives to close achievement gaps in low-income schools and communities.

The Gates Foundation plans to conduct several follow-up studies homing in on areas of interest in its own survey—for instance, teachers’ use of data to inform practice. As part of its ongoing work to measure the attributes of effective teachers, it is also administering the New Teacher Center’s school survey. (Gates provides grant support for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

In North Carolina, which has administered the New Teacher Center’s working-conditions survey several times since 2002, lawmakers approved a bill requiring all teachers to have a duty-free lunch period and planning time.

That state has also integrated the survey information into its school improvement planning and its standards for principals and superintendents. Schools that have taken part in the survey several years in a row can track their progress in improving working conditions.

Uneven Accountability?

A short section in the Obama administration’s ESEA blueprint indicates that all districts and states could soon be charged with generating such information about school-level working conditions.

The blueprint and the administration’s fiscal 2011 budget documents propose that districts and states would have to report, at least every two years, on the conditions in schools, including whether they are heavily staffed by novices, whether a culture of teacher absenteeism exists, and what teachers say about their working conditions.

But it doesn’t specify what states or districts would be expected to do with the data. That’s one of several reasons officials at the national teachers’ unions say they aren’t prepared to support the draft.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten contends that the blueprint’s focus on individual teachers’ effectiveness and accountability doesn’t adequately address other actors in the education system.

“The problem is that the survey is a free-standing document, it’s not really a part of any real accountability index,” Ms. Weingarten said. “If teachers express some sentiment about what should be fixed in their school, there’s nothing in here that compels anybody to listen to those voices.”

Ms. Weingarten has long promoted a vision of “360 degree” accountability, in which other key players, such as superintendents and principals, are held accountable for providing teachers with the tools they need to succeed, including up-to-date curricula and common planning time.

That’s a good goal, other experts say, but in practice, developing policy based on perceptual data generated from teacher surveys is tricky, said Eric Hirsch, the vice president of special projects for the New Teacher Center.

“We need to be very, very careful about this data point,” said Mr. Hirsch, who oversees the survey process for the center. “Ultimately, who conducts the survey, how it’s conducted, and how it’s going to be used will influence the results you’re going to get.”

Mr. Miller of the Center for American Progress, however, thinks that generating the data could be most important step forward, even beyond naming an agent responsible for responding to the results.

“When we eventually see reports at the school level with a bunch of indicators about school climate and working conditions, there will be a ton of questions worth asking,” Mr. Miller said.

Other experts highlight the administration’s plans for school leadership as a sign that it already acknowledges the effects of school culture on teachers.

“I think one of the hopeful aspects of the Race to the Top is that there is a paired emphasis on teacher performance and principal performance,” said Sabrina Laine, the director of the National Comprehensive Center on Teacher Quality, at Learning Point Associates, a federally funded technical-assistance provider, referring to criteria for that federal grant competition.

“Getting serious about identifying what the measures of effective school leadership look like,” she said, “will go a long way toward meeting some of the teachers’ unions’ concerns related to the kind of working conditions in place in a particular school.”

Changing Conditions

So far, the clearest examples of how teacher-survey information can inform education practices are found at the local level.

Jack J. Hoke, the superintendent of the Alexander County school system in Taylorsville, N.C., can cite many instances in which his 5,600-student district’s leaders have used the New Teacher Center’s instrument to improve conditions for teachers.

In one school, the survey results showed that teachers largely felt that they didn’t have enough time to plan together. To address the concern, the principal reworked the schedule so that fine-arts teachers, for instance, took breaks and planning periods at the same time.

At another school, Mr. Hoke said, teachers reported that they didn’t have enough access to up-to-date technology. Armed with that data, the district won a federal grant to support the provision of new technology and accompanying professional development.

Both schools have seen improvements in student test scores, and teacher-turnover rates in the district are now the second-lowest in the state, down from a former ranking of 25th, Mr. Hoke said.

“I think it has been really beneficial for students,” he said. “The most important job I have, in my opinion, is providing the resources and leadership for principals, because they are working with teachers, and teachers are the most important thing that’s affecting the classroom.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teacher Polls Look to Sway Policymakers

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