The Challenge to Changing Working Conditions

Recording the workplace perceptions of almost 90% of licensed educators statewide, you’d think the fourth edition of the North Carolina Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey—conducted in 2008 for the first time by the New Teacher Center at the University of California-Santa Cruz—would have real credibility, wouldn’t you?

After all, 104,000 teachers can’t ALL be wrong, can they?

And with documented evidence proving that the presence of key working conditions can increase student achievement and teacher retention, you’d think that the Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey would be embraced by everyone involved in education as a customized lever to drive change at the building level, right?

Unfortunately—like many well-intentioned school improvement efforts—the Teacher Working Conditions survey has had less of an impact on our state’s classrooms than I can be happy with for one reason:

No matter how many teachers respond to the North Carolina Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey, building principals and district level leaders simply don’t believe that there is any need for changes.

Check out these statistics—gathered from the 2008 survey and shared by Eric Hirsch, the Director of Special Projects at the New Teacher Center.  Eric has been studying the correlations between teacher working conditions and student learning in states ranging from North Carolina to Maine for the past four years:

Twc_principals_v_teachers_3

(Click on image for an enlarged view)

To say that principals have a different perception of the working conditions in their buildings might just qualify as the understatement of the year!  On nearly every key question, principals are positive that everything is fine, while somewhere between 25 and 50% of surveyed teachers—totalling 25 to 50 THOUSAND practitioners—remain skeptical.

When teacher attention is focused on the efforts and actions of school leaders, the perception gap is just as pronounced:

Twc_sustained_efforts_3 

(Click on image for an enlarged view)

So what do all of these numbers really mean for students, teachers, schools and communities?

Let’s start with what they DON’T mean:  The almost amazing perception gaps that exist between teachers and principals asked to reflect on the presence of key teaching and learning conditions DON’T mean that administrators are ignorant or evil, intentionally plotting against teachers and trying to create hostile environments and schools that fail.

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the greatest weakness of the Teaching and Learning Conditions Surveys being conducted by the New Teacher Center is the belief on the part of some teachers and parents that principals are solely responsible for the results of their school’s survey.  I cringe every time that I hear about communities that have tried to turn the Teaching and Learning Conditions Surveys into critiques of building leaders that they’ve grown to dislike.

And unfortunately, I do a lot of cringing.

In reality, MOST principals (and we all know at least one exception) would do anything to create successful schools where accomplished teachers want to work.  They are kind-hearted, intelligent, hard-working individuals who often spend their entire lives toiling in a generally thankless, pressure-packed positions in hopes of nothing more than seeing students succeed.

What these perception gaps DO MEAN is that there are incredible challenges to changing teacher working conditions.

After all, if the people who have the tangible organizational power to drive change in school leadership, professional development, time and empowerment are unable to see the kinds of challenges that teachers struggle with on a day-to-day basis, how can we expect concentrated efforts to improve a profession that loses almost 50% of its new recruits within 5 years?

In a March 2008 interview with Ed Week’s Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook, Eric Hirsch makes the case that the Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey can serve as starting points for critical conversations.  Laying out a plan for school leaders interested in using their survey results in a practical way, Hirsch writes:

Well, first I would sit down with this survey data—or other similar data—and engage my faculty in a conversation about what they want and need. Every school is in a unique place with a unique teaching corps, so you need to have some ability to discuss and reflect on what is going on in this particular environment and what can be improved from the teachers’ perspective. . .

It’s really about teachers and leaders working together and making informed decisions. It’s not about teachers vs. administrators. It’s about getting together and reflecting on what needs to be in place for everyone to be successful and making sure this gets done in a way that everyone is comfortable with.

My honest fear is that these kinds of conversations will never happen in some buildings because principals just don’t see any need for change.

And that reality scares me.

14 thoughts on “The Challenge to Changing Working Conditions

  1. J. Strope

    Bill,
    As a middle school principal, I take issue with your arguement. Our district has just provided training to administrator on the data from the TWCS and as a group, we discussed ways on how to address concerns that were cited. The disparity in the results comes from the fact that your survey results are tagged with a number letting DPI and the LEA know from which site the survey results were bubmitted. For all purposes, teachers do not have their names tied to the TWCS, but if you only have one or two administrators at your site, it is not hard to pin the author of some criticizing comments. For that reason alone I think you will find some disparity betewwen administrators and teachers.
    I also hate to “teach for the test”, but I also think that there needs to be some effort done by administrators to show some of the things that are being done on their campuses that may not be reflected on the TWCS.
    Finally, the heart of the real issue is teacher leadership. One can argue that teachers are not empowered enough, but it has been evident in my career as a teacher and administrator that 10-15% of the teachers end up doing 85-90% of the extra work that keeps a school running. The new teacher evaluation is going to force educators to step up and be leaders at the school. I think that will also have a positie impact on several key items on the TWCS. Just my two cents. Hope all is well in Wake County!

  2. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    “I’m not rating principals. I’m pointing out a perception gap that will affect the often stated desire to reduce teacher turnover rates.
    Does this make sense?”
    It does indeed. While I did not express it well in part that was my point. That gap in perception between stakeholders, the reality it exists is a reason to use surveys as a tool in the basket.
    It may be that principals/administrators are failing to communicate their goals as they differ and conflict with those of teachers in a way that may bring the answers closer together. It may be that the principals are right and the teachers not. It may be the teachers are right and the principals not. Knowing why the divergence exists could be explained a number of ways. What the survey does clearly say is that there is a divergence and a need to determine why. That answer in turn may yield solutions.
    The principal reading these survey results for their own schools who note the divergence certainly have motive to ask why their view differs so greatly from their staff’s. Whether they act on the information itself speaks to their leadership style.
    I have spoken with many parents who refer to this survey when considering a particular school. Most look at the teacher numbers. Who wants unhappy teachers with their kids?

  3. Bill Ferriter

    K asked:
    On surveys you recently wrote: “But surveys seem sketchy to me! I’ve been thrashed on Rate My Teacher one too many times to be comfortable with surveys—they are too ambiguous, they lack transparency, and they rely on multiple choice indicators to define my performance.” (See Cheap and Easy comments)
    Why is this particular survey different?
    You know, K—I’m all down with anyone evaluating me any way that they want. Actually, I really have no choice, do I! They’re going to do what they want to do anyway.
    And I think you’re missing the point of my post—-I’m not suggesting that these results are an indicator of a PRINCIPAL’s performance at all. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of the survey.
    TWC are a reflection of the actions of every stakeholder—parents, teachers, policymakers, business leaders, district officials AND principals.
    All that I’m trying to show in this post is that the perceptions of reality between teachers and principals are incredibly pronounced—which means that change is unlikely to ever happen because principals have far more organizational power than teachers or parents.
    The 50% turnover rates in education—which costs our nation millions of dollars in recruiting fees each year (estimates are that replacing a teacher costs between 11 and 15 K)—can be cut down if we focus on improving the working conditions of teachers.
    But improving conditions requires an awareness of the need for improvement.
    These results—which reflect the perceptions of 87% of the educators in North Carolina (104,000 educators—-enough teachers to provide 10 teachers per classroom in Wake County—and 100 teachers per classroom in smaller counties)—-suggest that awareness doesn’t exist.
    I’m not rating principals. I’m pointing out a perception gap that will affect the often stated desire to reduce teacher turnover rates.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  4. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    On surveys you recently wrote: “But surveys seem sketchy to me! I’ve been thrashed on Rate My Teacher one too many times to be comfortable with surveys—they are too ambiguous, they lack transparency, and they rely on multiple choice indicators to define my performance.” (See Cheap and Easy comments)
    Why is this particular survey different?
    Your previous comment quoted here responded to my suggestion that parents be surveyed as a part of evaluating performance. Teachers responding to a working conditions survey differs in what way?
    I agree surveys have limitations, but they can shed light on the need to ask further questions. If in a given school, teachers (or parents) via a survey indicate satisfaction or lack thereof, the need to investigate further exists. Mr. Hirsh’s concept of a discussion starting point is valid. I disagree only with his statement that the solutions must be something everyone is “comfortable” with because perhaps comfort for all and improvement may not go hand in hand.

  5. Bob Heiny

    These correlations don’t infer anything more than respondants offered two views. In that light, at least two other views exist besides the ones mentioned so far.
    Principals have similar background as classroom teachers, plus may have more information about teaching-learning and learning setting options than teachers use.
    People have learned for centuries more in poorer conditions than at almost any public school in the U.S.
    Yes?

  6. Bill Ferriter

    David wrote:
    Maybe the number of teachers responding could be seen as a weakness of the survey too; if it’s not broken down by schools or districts, the survey isn’t “sensitive” enough to pick up some key differences that could suggest progress in some sites/districts.
    Hey David,
    All legitimate points. Regarding this one, every school in North Carolina had at least a 40% response rate—which made them eligible for a school level report.
    And as you suspect, there is great variance between the scores on different domains in different schools and different districts.
    That being said, with a sample size so large—104,000—-I’m not sure that any single school faculty could change the overall average significantly, no matter how poorly they rated their working conditions.
    Now, our state does a lot to highlight schools with excellent working conditions. Every two years, 10 schools are recognized as “Real DEAL” award winners. These buildings have high domain averages as well as high student achievement rates.
    These buildings are celebrated at an annual conference where they demonstrate the kinds of innovative things that they have come up with to improve teacher working conditions.
    All of their efforts are documented and are available online for other schools to learn from.
    The singular challenge, though, is how many schools and districts are really going to go looking for help if their leaders don’t perceive any problems?
    Rock on,
    Bill

  7. Bill Ferriter

    John asked:
    Your thoughts seem valid enough as a commentary on current conditions. I would like to ask; For the same questions, has there been improvement shown in year over year results?
    Interesting point, Pops. Looking back on the results over time, you’ll see some slight improvements. For example, the first question regarding instructional time saw 47% of teachers agree in 2006 compared to 49% now.
    The second question regarding taking steps to solve problems moved from 63% in 2006 to 66% today.
    And while any improvement is good, I guess that I’m still doubtful about meaningful change ever happening—particularly because our schools lose thousands of teachers each year.
    I’m not sure we have time for incremental improvement in those situations!
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  8. John Ferriter

    Hi Bill…
    Your thoughts seem valid enough as a commentary on current conditions. I would like to ask; For the same questions, has there been improvement shown in year over year results? I would think that this would be a good indicator of whether administrators/district leaders are making any progress. I don’t think we’ll ever see the teachers agree with the admin.; that’s just the nature of labor/management relationships. Yet, I think that if we can show progress; we can take thanks that conditions are improving. Peace…..

  9. Dave

    Of course principals don’t see problems: by definition, they are the ones who thrived in those working conditions.
    It’s like asking students who just received an undergraduate degree whether their high school prepared them for college.

  10. David Cohen

    Hey Bill –
    I see what you’re saying, but without more information, I wouldn’t be as alarmed – yet.
    Maybe the number of teachers responding could be seen as a weakness of the survey too; if it’s not broken down by schools or districts, the survey isn’t “sensitive” enough to pick up some key differences that could suggest progress in some sites/districts. If some schools could only get 20% favorable responses from teachers, it might mask those that can pull down an 80%. And if I’m right about that negative subgroup found in many schools, I’d expect that even in schools where things are going pretty well overall, you probably wouldn’t break 75-80% favorable views anyway, still leaving a poll that shows a 15-20% gap. (Disclaimer – I’m just going off the top of my head here, without knowing any more about the survey methodology than you’ve mentioned). So, I guess I’m not totally alarmed by these results since I would expect the first 15-20% disparity in most cases, and the rest of it doesn’t seem to separate the schools performing well or poorly in these measures, causing a “regression to the mean” (is that the technical term?).
    I think we would agree about what teachers need to do in terms of advocacy, and keeping principals and other adminstrators addressing our needs, but I wouldn’t lose hope based on this survey.

  11. Bill Ferriter

    David writes:
    And I think you know from experience that there’s a certain group of teachers who will rarely if ever respond positiviely about anything in their workplace or anything having to do with administration. Many of these teachers will actively avoid or sabotage various initiatives at their schools.
    Hey David,
    This is what most school leaders say when confronted with challenging evidence about the presence/absence of positive teacher working conditions.
    My problem with this line of thinking is that 87% of North Carolina’s teachers responded to this year’s survey!
    That (to me) gives the numbers a greater measure of credibility than ever before. While I agree that there are always going to be teachers who respond negatively to the work of administrators, their impact can’t explain such stark differences in perceptions when almost every teacher in our state took the time to share their thinking.
    What I do believe is that the high scores that principals give themselves is based on the incredibly hard work that they do every day to improve schools. They ARE giving their best—which makes them more likely to rate themselves well on perception questions related to their schools.
    And I don’t deny that administrators are doing their best. The threat in these results isn’t effort.
    It’s in the fact that school leaders that work beyond the classroom have a blind spot to the reality of our work—and that blind spot is going to keep them from making the kinds of decisions that could make classroom positions more desirable.
    Does this make sense to you?
    Bill

  12. David Cohen

    Hi Bill –
    Interesting material here. I might offer a slightly different interpretation, which is that most people tend to respond to these surveys with most if not all of their focus coming from their own experiences. Now, if the principal is spending lots of time engaged in the right type of activities, but not reaching everyone, the principal will certainly say that these things are being addressed. Still, there’s a critical mass of people answering who aren’t benefiting from the principal’s efforts, aren’t being affected by whatever the principal is thinking of when responding so positively. And I think you know from experience that there’s a certain group of teachers who will rarely if ever respond positiviely about anything in their workplace or anything having to do with administration. Many of these teachers will actively avoid or sabotage various initiatives at their schools. So, I’m not surprised to see that when the questions are posed this way, there’s a huge disparity. It would be interesting to see results with more possible answers, such as: “Leadership in the school embraces teacher input always/often/sometimes/rarely/never” or “On a scale of 1-5, how effectively does school leadership communicate with stakeholders?” Then we could see some shades of grey in people’s perceptions.
    Bottom line though, given the disparities revealed here, I think the message to teachers should be that we have to grow our own leaders and learn to advocate more effectively for educational improvement.

  13. TeachMoore

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