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October 2005 | Number 43
Conditions for Learning
Scott Emerick, Eric Hirsch and Barnett Berry
Successful democracies and economies demand that all students acquire analytical thinking, adept communication, and complex problem-solving skills. This kind of authentic learning requires highly skilled, accomplished teachers working within a school climate that promotes powerful learning experiences. Recent research shows that the design, leadership, and culture of schools are important, yet often overlooked, elements to improving teaching and learning.
The requirement of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act that every student have a “highly qualified” teacher represents a potentially positive step toward increasing student learning despite the shortcomings of the current definition of “highly qualified” and the difficulty of fulfilling the requirement in hard-to-staff school districts (Emerick, Hirsch, & Berry, 2004). Proper implementation of this requirement alone, however, is insufficient for closing the student achievement gap. Even highly qualified teachers must also have the resources and support necessary to serve all students well. Without comprehensive and sustained efforts to improve teacher working conditions, many promising school reform efforts will likely fail.
Although business leaders have long recognized and responded to connections between employee working conditions and productivity, many U.S. schools still struggle to address this critical link in their own work environment. As a result of the disconnect, teachers often are isolated in their classrooms, face overwhelming noninstructional duties, have extremely limited opportunities for meaningful decision making, lack basic instructional materials, and perceive few opportunities for advancement and growth.
School systems and the policymakers that help govern them should measure, recognize, and respond to the direct effect that these conditions have on teacher attrition and, ultimately, student achievement. Data collected and analyzed from approximately 50,000 teachers in North Carolina (Hirsch, 2005b) and South Carolina (Hirsch, 2005a) show powerful empirical links between teachers' working conditions and student achievement. In other words, improved working conditions are not only central to teachers' well-being and satisfaction, but they are also important to the success of the students they serve. Research from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) indicates that teachers' perceptions of certain working conditions significantly influence schools' adequate yearly progress (AYP) status and the ability to reach student achievement growth targets.
Improving teacher working conditions means more than focusing on resources, class sizes, and physical structures. The current concept of working conditions must move beyond typical labor issues of occupational health and safety concerns to consider a more comprehensive environment for teaching and learning. Recent teacher working conditions research includes measures to determine the effect of time allocation, empowerment, professional development, and leadership—complex issues now proven to be closely related to the capacity of professionals to improve student learning.
The importance of teacher working conditions is magnified by the teacher attrition problems plaguing schools—especially in the United States' chronically hard-to-staff urban and rural schools. Richard Ingersoll's (2001a) analyses have revealed that approximately 50 percent of new teachers in any given year leave the profession within five years. In addition, annual teacher turnover rates are considerably higher (15.7 percent) than the average rates in non-teaching occupations (11 percent).
This teacher turnover comes at considerable costs to taxpayers, districts, schools, and students. When accounting for resources spent on professional development and recruitment, school districts lose approximately $11,000 for each new teacher who leaves in the first few years of teaching (Texas Center for Educational Research, 2000). Perhaps more important than the financial costs, this rate of turnover negatively affects the culture of schools, making it difficult to sustain a comprehensive school improvement program or build trust and spread knowledge among the faculty. Further, it subjects students to a revolving door of teachers who do not stay long enough to know them well and teach them effectively.
It is within this context that CTQ and other national researchers are documenting the relationship among teacher working conditions, teacher retention rates, and student achievement. Ingersoll, one of the most extensive examiners of working conditions data, has found that leadership, empowerment, and time have striking connections to teachers' dissatisfaction—especially in high-poverty urban schools. In a national survey of teachers regarding reasons for teacher dissatisfaction, Ingersoll (2001b) found that poor administrative support (60.1 percent) and lack of faculty influence (42.6 percent) were the leading factors for dissatisfaction in high-poverty urban schools. Conversely, poor salary was the leading factor for dissatisfaction in low-poverty suburban schools (61.1 percent) with administrative support (30.1) and faculty influence (14.3) proving less significant for suburban teachers than their urban counterparts.
More recently, the Learning First Alliance (LFA), a national partnership of 12 leading education associations, published A Shared Responsibility: Staffing All High-Poverty, Low-Performing Schools with Effective Teachers and Administrators, a 2005 report that identifies a set of key factors that must be addressed to narrow gaps in educator quality. Specifically, the report targets improved teacher working conditions that make the job “doable” by ensuring adequate resource staff; manageable class sizes; and a safe, supportive environment. The report claims that basic working conditions in high-poverty, low-performing schools are often far worse than any professional should be asked to tolerate, and it is hardly surprising that such conditions are a major cause of high teacher turnover in many schools. The report predicts that even excellent teachers will struggle when faced with poor facilities, a lack of resources, intrusions on instructional time, and inadequate preparation time.
Robert Marzano (2003) has also researched and described a core set of 12 school-, teacher-, and student-level factors proven to increase student achievement. Many of Marzano's factors relate to working conditions, including collegiality and professionalism as well as a safe and orderly school environment. Further, Marzano's work points emphatically to the importance of quality leadership, which “could be considered the single most important aspect of effective school reform. . . . [I]t influences every aspect of the model” (p. 172).
Marzano's view on the significance of leadership in developing a culture that works in schools is strongly supported by CTQ's statistical analysis of teacher working conditions, which indicated that leadership is positively and significantly correlated to all other working conditions. For example, many of the critical issues within the area of professional development involve principals acting as strong instructional leaders, prioritizing, providing resources, and allowing teachers to direct their own learning. Teachers who felt empowered to make decisions about their classroom and school work have positive views of their school leader. The correlations suggest that improving leadership could have a “ripple” effect on other working conditions, causing teachers' overall satisfaction with their school climate to increase and thereby improving student learning.
Beyond these studies, until recently, only a limited research base existed directly related to teacher working conditions. More than 15 years ago, Ginsberg and Berry (1990) found that teacher working conditions associated with South Carolina's high-stakes accountability movement were linked to high levels of emotional exhaustion, and Corcoran, Walker, and White (1998) found that the lack of resources (materials and equipment, for example) created stress among teachers, and in doing so, lowered both their sense of efficacy and attendance. More recently, Anthony Bryk has conducted research demonstrating that educators working at the top-performing quartile of schools reported a much higher degree of trust on their campuses than their colleagues at low-performing schools (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).
Before 2002, systematic evaluations of teacher working conditions provided only limited data, circumscribing the consideration of teachers' experiences, perceptions, and needs to individual school districts and schools. Educator perceptions of teacher working conditions have recently been collected statewide in North and South Carolina and in pilot initiatives in Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia, allowing individual schools and communities to consider customized and appropriate policies and programs to address the most pressing concerns of their own teachers. The National Education Association is also working with CTQ to consider statewide working conditions efforts in 4–6 additional states during the 2005–06 school year.
In 2002, under the leadership of Governor Mike Easley, North Carolina became the first state to implement a statewide study of teacher working conditions by surveying teachers and administrators across the state. Created by the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards Commission, the survey looked at 30 working conditions standards in five areas—time, empowerment, facilities and resources, leadership, and professional development—and was made available to every teacher in the state. It asked teachers to disclose their perceptions about the five critical working conditions areas in relation to their own work environment.
The survey was administered again in North Carolina in 2004 but moved online and expanded to include 72 questions that not only captured teachers' perceptions of working conditions but also actual conditions of work (e.g., the number of hours spent outside of the school day on instruction and types of professional development courses taken). Factor analysis and stakeholder surveys have been conducted during statewide and pilot initiatives in various states to validate the survey instrument. The most recent version of the survey was shortened by including only those questions with the highest explanatory value and factor weighting.
In North Carolina, CTQ analyzed more than 34,000 surveys from teachers and principals in 90 percent of the state's schools. The Department of Education's Division of Teaching Quality and the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement sponsored a similar initiative in South Carolina, in which more than 15,000 surveys were analyzed.
In both studies, teachers' responses on the working conditions survey were powerful predictors of whether or not schools made AYP and performed well on the states' respective school accountability models. (Only North and South Carolina allowed analysis with student achievement data, because only they had statewide data available; the pilot sites in Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia did not provide a sampling representative of the states' total student populations.)
The connections between teacher retention and working conditions were statistically significant in many instances as well. However, the connections manifested at lower levels than other critical factors influencing teachers' decisions to remain in a school, including the percentage of teachers on emergency credentials, student poverty levels, school size, and school designation levels for student achievement. In North Carolina, greater agreement (i.e., higher satisfaction levels) with the empowerment questions on the survey had a significant effect on teacher retention at the high school level. A significant connection between retention and professional development was also documented at the high school level and to an even greater degree at the elementary level. Further, leadership was a significant predictor of teacher retention in South Carolina.
Teachers indicated that working in a collegial atmosphere (34 percent in North Carolina and 32 percent in South Carolina) and being led by a principal with a strong instructional focus (27 percent in North Carolina and 26 percent in South Carolina) mattered most in their decision about whether or not to stay at a school. Teachers value school settings where they are not isolated and where the leadership supports their efforts. As one accomplished teacher stated during an online conversation about teacher working conditions: “My darkest hours of teaching were when I had no one else to talk to about student achievement and effective instruction. It was in those days that I made covert plans to find somewhere else to teach” (Ferriter & Norton, 2004, p. 20).
The research also demonstrated that although leadership is critical to improving working conditions, principals and teachers perceive these conditions very differently. Responses on every survey question differed significantly between the two groups of educators. Principals were more positive about working conditions in every area, particularly about the amount of time teachers have and how empowered they are to make decisions on education issues.
Of course, some disparity in perceptions between school leaders and teachers is to be expected, as would be the case with most business or other organizational surveys regarding working conditions. However, both the consistency and the degree to which these discrepancies between school leaders and teachers occurred across questions and domains on the survey are noteworthy. The data indicate that many teachers have serious concerns about time constraints and their decision-making authority and that these concerns often go unrecognized by school leaders. If many school and district leaders do not perceive the full extent of their teachers' concerns related to working conditions, the lack of impetus to improve these conditions is hardly surprising.
The research also indicates that teachers, regardless of their background and experience, view working conditions similarly. Teacher responses to the North Carolina and South Carolina Working Conditions Survey were remarkably similar. Race, gender, highest degree earned, means of preparation (lateral entry versus traditional preparation), and National Board-certification status did not appear to affect teacher perceptions of any working conditions domain. Teachers' backgrounds and experiences also did not affect overall satisfaction with their school or the aspects of working conditions they believed to be most important to retaining teachers and improving student learning. This finding is particularly important in relation to district and state reforms because it indicates that all teachers will be similarly receptive to working conditions improvement.
Just as Robert Marzano found that leadership affects other working conditions, survey results showed that each of the five domains is positively and significantly correlated with the other domains and that teachers' positive or negative perceptions about one area can affect their perception of their working conditions as a whole. This interconnectedness could pose challenges to schools looking to focus on making improvements in particular areas, but the correlations also indicate that by improving one area, a school could expect to improve teachers' perception of their work environment as a whole.
Although the significance of any effort to develop knowledge about teacher working conditions should not be underestimated, developing resources, tools, and plans to respond to the data with meaningful school reforms is the most essential element of the working conditions initiative.
Unfortunately, many schools simply lack the time, capacity, and commitment to fully understand and act on this data. In response to this challenge, CTQ has worked with a variety of partners to develop a range of tools, resources, and support opportunities to help schools across the state better comprehend and react to the challenges highlighted by their data.
The Teacher Working Conditions Toolkit (www.teacherworkingconditions.org) was developed with support from the BellSouth Foundation and BellSouth North Carolina to help communities and schools better understand and respond to the data from the 2004 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey. The toolkit includes examples of schools that have addressed teacher working conditions successfully, checklists and concrete ideas to provide a roadmap for working conditions reforms, and background research to give users some theoretical perspective when identifying school reform strategies. The toolkit also offers specific action strategies for various role groups, including community members, teachers, principals, district officials, and policymakers.
Many individual school districts in North Carolina and pilot districts in both Virginia and Ohio have created professional development opportunities to study and understand working conditions survey results. In addition, principals and teachers in some districts have worked to create school and district improvement plans that incorporate working conditions reforms. District representatives across the state of North Carolina have also received training to present working conditions data with the goal of helping their respective schools better understand and respond to teacher working conditions challenges.
As interest and participation in teacher working conditions initiatives grow, the opportunity to create responses based on the experiences of other districts familiar with working conditions reforms increases exponentially. Districts in the Ohio pilot working conditions effort, for example, received matched pair comparisons of North Carolina districts similar in size and student demographics. The value of this frame of reference was recently described by Ann Byrd, director of the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement: “Not only will we get a closer look at the working conditions of teachers and administrators in our own state, but we will also have the opportunity to compare our situation with neighboring states who have conducted similar research” (Center for Teaching Quality, 2005, p. 2).
Teacher working conditions also affect teaching quality and instructional practices. In an ongoing CTQ study of indicators of teacher and teaching quality, researchers have found significant differences between high-performing and average-performing schools on a wide variety of induction and professional development practices, which, in turn, led to differences in how teachers taught. For example, in higher-performing schools with better working conditions (e.g., more collaborative time with colleagues and opportunities for engagement in teacher-led professional development), teachers were much more likely to assess students before and after teaching lessons, embed assessments within informal instruction, and offer more individualized instruction (Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, n.d.).
The teacher working conditions effort is allowing school communities to consider essential issues related to empowerment, leadership, facilities and resources, time, and professional development. Similarly, the teaching quality indicators effort allows for focus on more classroom-specific measures related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Collectively, the tools present the opportunity for school leaders, policymakers, and community members to consider how both school-level achievement gains and the achievement of students with individual teachers are predicted by a recognizable set of school- and classroom-level conditions.
Ultimately, the types of reforms required to improve working conditions in schools are not quick fixes. Despite its obvious importance, improving teacher working conditions should not be considered an independent cure-all. Instead, these efforts should inform a broader data set used to achieve a more comprehensive understanding for improving schools in ways that help retain teachers and promote student achievement and authentic learning. The good news is that more and more states, schools, and districts around the country are tapping into the power of working conditions data to help inform and drive their school improvement efforts.
Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Center for Teaching Quality. (2005). Governor Easley's Teacher Working Conditions Initiative: Resources and response for teacher working conditions data. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved September 8, 2005, from www.teachingquality.org/pdfs/twcresources.pdf
Corcoran, T. B., Walker, L. J., & White, J. L. (1998). Working in urban schools. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.
Emerick, S., Hirsch, E., & Berry, B. (2004, November). NCLB and teachers: Does highly qualified mean high-quality? ASCD Infobrief, 39, 1–8.
Ferriter, W., & Norton, J. (2004, Spring). Creating a culture of excellence. Threshold, 2(1), 18–21. Retrieved September 8, 2005, from www.ciconline.com/AboutCIC/Publications/Archives/threshold_spring04.htm
Ginsberg, R., & Berry, B. (1990). Experiencing school reform: The view from South Carolina. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(7), 549–552.
Hirsch, E. (2005a). Listening to the experts: A report on the 2004 South Carolina teacher working conditions survey. Chapel Hill, NC: Southeast Center for Teaching Quality.
Hirsch, E. (2005b). Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions: A report to Governor Mike Easley on the 2004 North Carolina teacher working conditions survey. Chapel Hill, NC: Southeast Center for Teaching Quality.
Ingersoll, R. M. (2001a, January). A different approach to solving the teacher shortage problem. Teaching Quality Policy Briefs. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. Available online at http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/Briefs.html
Ingersoll, R. (2001b, Fall). Teacher turnover and teacher shortages: An organizational analysis. American Education Research Journal, 38, 499–534.
Learning First Alliance. (2005). A shared responsibility: Staffing all high-poverty, low-performing schools with effective teachers and administrators. Washington, DC: Author.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Southeast Center for Teaching Quality. (n.d.). Investigating teaching quality indicators in high-performing schools in Texas: Phase I findings. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Abstract available online at www.teachingquality.org/pdfs/200211JFTK-SECTQ_RockefellerReport.pdf
Texas Center for Educational Research. (2000, November). The cost of teacher turnover. Austin, TX: Texas State Board for Educator Certification. Retrieved September 8, 2005, from www.sbec.state.tx.us/SBECOnline/txbess/turnoverrpt.pdf
Sources: Adapted from Teacher Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions: A Report to Governor Mike Easley on the 2004 Teacher Working Conditions Survey by E. Hirsch, March, 2005, Chapel Hill, NC: Southeast Center for Teaching Quality; and Listening to the Experts: A Report on the 2004 South Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey by E. Hirsch, March, 2005, Chapel Hill, NC: Southeast Center for Teaching Quality.
The Iredell-Statesville School District in western North Carolina brought together Teacher of the Year designees from each of its schools to carefully consider its working conditions survey results and create related goals that were integrated into the district improvement plan. Iredell-Statesville was able to host this teacher conference because the district had a sufficient response rate in 32 of its 34 schools and a response rate of over 60 percent across the district. After multiple professional development days spent working with the data, Iredell-Statesville eventually used the data to help convince county commissioners to invest additional money in enhancing facilities and resources across the district.
Scott Emerick is a policy and communications associate at the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ—formerly named the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality). Eric Hirschis the executive director and Barnett Berry is the founder and president of CTQ. Based in Chapel Hill, N.C., CTQ is a national organization with a mission to ensure that all students have access to high-quality teaching. CTQ improves student learning by shaping policies through developing teacher leadership, building coalitions, and conducting practical research. For more information about CTQ, visit www.teachingquality.org.
Copyright © 2005 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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