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December 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 4

Using Data, Changing Teaching

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Most education researchers and policymakers agree that students need good teachers (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007; Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). But they are much less likely to concur on what makes a good teacher. In recent years, the "highly qualified teacher" provision of No Child Left Behind has focused the debate more on teacher credentials than on the conditions that can help teachers succeed.
However, in the shadows of this policy landscape, researchers are beginning to explore the role that working conditions play in both teacher retention and student achievement (see, for example, Futernick, 2007; Johnson, Berg, & Donaldson, 2005; Loeb & Darling-Hammond, 2005; National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). This research raises several questions regarding which working conditions matter most to teachers and how policymakers and practitioners can improve working conditions in a way that will enhance teacher and student success.
The Center for Teaching Quality, with support from the National Education Association, has begun to consider these questions. Between 2004 and 2007, the center used Web-based tools to survey more than 200,000 teachers in seven states. These working-conditions surveys, which had a high response rate (for example, almost 70 percent of surveyed teachers in Mississippi responded in 2007), have produced a rich data source that is helping us better understand how working conditions contribute to teacher retention and student achievement, as well as how local educators can use these kinds of data to change their schools.

What Matters to Teachers

The working-conditions surveys in the seven states produced a number of consistent findings. Teachers who intend to leave their schools and teaching are more likely than those who intend to stay to have concerns about their lack of empowerment, poor school leadership, and the low levels of trust and respect inside their buildings.
For example, our 2007 Mississippi survey revealed that 64 percent of stayers reported that there was "an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect within their school," whereas only 38 percent of the leavers (those leaving the teaching field entirely) and 18 percent of the movers reported similarly. Our 2007 Clark County, Nevada, survey revealed that 64 percent of stayers "felt comfortable raising issue and concerns that are important to them," in contrast with only 39 percent of the leavers and 25 percent of the movers. These patterns held up across all states on almost every survey item.
In general, time-related issues do not seem to influence teacher attrition. However, "time demands outside the work day" do appear to influence teacher attrition at the elementary level. Interestingly, characteristics that lead teachers to describe a school as a "good place to teach and learn" are not the same characteristics that affect actual attrition rates (Berry, Smylie, & Fuller, 2008).
Teachers tended to respond similarly, despite differences in types of credentials and years of experience. However, there were a few exceptions. New teachers and elementary teachers are less concerned about issues of empowerment than are experienced teachers and teachers at the secondary level. Elementary school teachers are far more positive about their working conditions than their middle and high school counterparts are. For example, our 2007 Arizona survey revealed that far more elementary school teachers (71 percent) were satisfied with the quality of professional development than their high school counterparts (52 percent).
Teachers and administrators often view teaching and learning conditions differently—quite dramatically so. Not surprisingly, teachers are less likely to respond positively to questions about whether their schools offer working conditions that support effective teaching than are administrators in the same schools.

A Partnership for Learning

By studying schools that use data from their teachers' responses to their state's working-conditions survey to redesign their learning environments, we hope to gain additional insights into the relationship between teacher working conditions and school success. A partnership between Millbrook Elementary School in Wake County, North Carolina, and nearby Peace College is enabling us to understand how the data generated through Millbrook's participation in the North Carolina working-conditions survey is improving teacher working conditions.
Millbrook Elementary School serves approximately 750 students and is staffed with 67 fully credentialed teachers. Located in the growing metropolis of Raleigh, North Carolina, the K–5 Title I school supports an increasingly diverse student population—approximately 57 percent black, 23 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. Millbrook students all participate in the school's International Baccalaureate program and perform well on the state's high-stakes end-of-grade tests. In 2007, 86 percent of students met state reading standards, and 62 percent met math standards—both results reflecting significant gains from the previous year. Millbrook is a good school that believes it can become great by continually improving teaching practice.
Three years ago, Peace College, a private four-year college for women, joined Millbrook in a partnership whose initiatives include matching student teachers with Millbrook's most accomplished educators and providing in-depth support for Millbrook veterans who seek National Board Certification. The partnership is also using data from the state working-conditions survey to drive Millbrook's improvement efforts.

Responding to Data

North Carolina has administered a bi-annual teacher working-conditions survey since 2002. Shortly after the beginning of the 2007–08 school year, the principal of Millbrook put into place a number of changes in response to the 2006 survey data. For example, the 2006 survey revealed that more than a quarter of teachers did not think that there was adequate time to collaborate with colleagues, As a result, the school schedule was reconfigured so that grade-level teams could meet as professional learning communities once every six days for 80 minutes and in monthly after-school curriculum meetings and monthly half-day planning meetings.
The 2006 data also revealed that teachers believed they had little influence on school decisions. They now play a primary role in hiring new staff, designing professional development, and creating school budgets. Peace College assisted in the creation of professional learning communities focused on developing more National Board–certified teachers in the school and encouraging faculty members to publicly study and explain their teaching decisions.
These changes appear to be bearing fruit. In 2006, there was one Board-certified teacher in the school. In the 2007–08 school year, 14 teachers participated in the rigorous National Board process (results due in late 2008). In the 2008–09 school year, Millbrook has had the vast majority of its teachers return for the first time in three years.

Getting Results

In 2008, over 86 percent of North Carolina's total teaching force (up from 66 percent in 2006) participated in the statewide working-conditions survey. At Millbrook, 100 percent of teachers responded—largely, one teacher said, because the survey "gives us an opportunity to reflect on our practices and policies and better ourselves as a school." The 2008 data support her statement. Seventy-five percent of the school's faculty reported that the survey data were "used as a tool for school improvement," twice the percentage in 2006.
Most strikingly, on every item in the 2008 survey, Millbrook teachers, on average, responded more positively than their district and state peers. For example, Millbrook teachers are far more likely to strongly believe that they have time to collaborate, have sufficient access to instructional materials, are trusted to make instructional decisions, and receive support from their school's leadership (see fig. 1). On almost all items, the majority of Millbrook teachers strongly agreed that positive working conditions related to facilities and resources, time, empowerment, and school leadership were in place. Millbrook teachers were also far more positive than in the 2006 survey about the time available to collaborate and the opportunity to participate in decision making (see fig. 2).
Figure 1. Results of 2008 Working-Conditions Survey
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Figure 2. Millbrook Working-Conditions Survey Results
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However, the 2008 survey did reveal a problem with professional development. There were significant gaps between the teachers' perceived professional development needs and the actual amount of training they received in areas such as special needs, gifted and talented, and second-language learners.
The current school year is bringing about more changes based on the 2008 survey data. In response to the teachers request for more preparation to work with students with special needs and more training on how to effectively work with colleagues, Peace College professors are designing and implementing customized professional development in special education and in cognitive coaching.

Moving Forward

Our experience with the working-conditions survey suggests several ways in which surveys can become even more powerful drivers of school improvement. For example, survey questions could help researchers examine how teacher assignments, high-stakes accountability, and curriculum resources and mandates affect teacher retention and student achievement. Surveys could also address issues related to student engagement or parent and community support.
Researchers studying working conditions need to spend time in schools where they can observe the school climate. Depending solely on survey instruments can lead to misperceptions. For example, research that takes retention as proof positive of a good school climate may overlook the fact that some teachers flee a school because working conditions are too positive, at least from the viewpoint of requiring good teaching practice. These teachers may simply be opting out rather than accepting the need to change their teaching habits.
In order to make causal claims about the relationship between working conditions and student achievement, researchers would need longitudinal data tracking how similar cohorts of teachers respond over time and how school achievement levels compare during the same period. Although the kinds of data that would support such claims are not currently available, we did find that Arizona elementary schools implementing a career-ladder program, which included more opportunities for teacher leadership, produced higher student achievement gains than a matched sample of schools without such a program.
To accomplish the kinds of changes that can bring about school success, we need to know more about how principals use survey data and how teachers and administrators can work together. New research instruments can help us learn how teaching expertise spreads within a building and actually changes teaching practices and improves student learning. We can also learn more about the working conditions principals need for improvements in teaching and learning to occur.
Finally, while the National Education Association and participating states and districts have done a great deal to promote the documentation of teacher working conditions, not enough has been done to scale up the use of the data for school improvement. Without the help of Peace College, Millbrook Elementary would not have had an objective third party to help interpret the data or identify best practices that are making a difference.
No sensible educator would disagree that we need student assessment data to guide changes in curriculum and instruction. But we also need parallel data about school working conditions that tell us what changes must occur in the workplace to make it possible for teachers and students to reach their peak performance levels. It is one thing to ensure that every child has a talented well-prepared teacher. It is another to ensure that every teacher works under the conditions that allow him or her to teach effectively and help all students reach high academic standards.

Berry, B., Smylie, M., & Fuller, E. (2008).Understanding teacher working conditions: A review and a look to the future. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Clotfelter, C., Ladd, S., & Vigdor, J. (2007).Teacher credentials and student achievement in high schools: A cross-subject analysis with student fixed effects (Working Paper No. 11). Washington, DC: CALDER.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Youngs, P. (2002). Defining "highly qualified teachers": What does "scientifically-based research" actually tell us? Educational Researcher, 31(9), 13–25.

Futernick, K. (2007). A possible dream: Retaining California teachers so all students learn. Sacramento: California State University.

Johnson, S. M., Berg, J. H., & Donaldson, M. L. (2005). Who stays in teaching and why: A review of the literature on teacher retention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Loeb, S., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2005). How teaching conditions predict teacher turnover in California schools. Peabody Journal of Education, 80(3), 44–70.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2004). Teacher attrition and mobility: Results for the teacher follow-up survey, 2000–01 (NCES 2004-301). Washington, DC: Author.

Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996).Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Barnett Berry has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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