Although you might not be able to tell it from some of my blog posts, I’m basically an optimist (albeit a pragmatic one) when it comes to the future of public education in the U.S.

However, if there were ever cause for pessimism, my colleague Bill Ferriter, The Tempered Radical, may have flagged it on his recent post about teacher working conditions. His detailed summary of the gap in perceptions between teachers and administrators in North Carolina parallels those found in almost every other such state level survey that I’ve seen, including the first ever one done in my own state of Mississippi. Like Bill, I was struck not only by the dissonance between teachers and their administrators, but by what that means for the future of our schools.

As Bill cites in his piece, since teacher working conditions have measurable impact on both student achievement and teacher retention, surely we should be paying more attention to improving them. Many people are surprised to learn that teachers have much less control over their own working conditions than is commonly believed or than our peers in other professions. The general public might be even more surprised to learn (what the teacher surveys from around the country show) that salary is not the main issue for teachers; administrative support is. That makes it all the more important that building and district level administrators pay attention to the working conditions of teachers, since they are they once who can have the most immediate impact upon them.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming evidence from these surveys is that our leadership is in a chronic state of denial. Or as Bill so eloquently observes:

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 and 50 THOUSAND practitioners—remain skeptical.

I made a similar analysis of the Mississippi survey of teacher working conditions in my June 1 post. For example:

  • 89% of the principals said teachers are respected as professionals but only 57% of the teachers agreed.
  • 84%  of the principals assert that teachers are centrally involved in decision making about educational issues, but  63% of teachers said, “Not.”
  • 95% of the principals are convinced their teachers feel comfortable raising issues and concerns that are important to the faculty, but 46% of their teachers reported being slightly to totally uncomfortable doing so.
  • 99% of the school leadership in the survey say they consistently support teachers when needed, only 64% their teachers agreed.
  • 95% of the principals believe teachers are trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction, while only 63% of their teachers said that was so. {Which brings me back to the point of my last post–Trusting teachers may just be the most radical educational reform of all!}

“…more than one-quarter (27 percent) of all teachers report playing no role in the selection of the professional development opportunities available to them, and more than half (58 percent) say they play no more than a small role. Additionally, teachers are not engaged in school improvement planning (60 percent play no more than a small role) or in determining how Education Enhancement Funds [state funds raised by a special tax and earmarked for classroom supplies] will be spent (over 40 percent report playing no role at all)” (21).

The MS Clear Voice report continues, “Research suggests that participation in decision-making of this kind is often associated with keeping teachers in the profession [Ingersoll, R.M. 2003 Who controls teachers’ work: Power and accountability in America’s schools], yet teachers in Mississippi appear to have limited involvement in many of these decision-making arenas. Indeed, many teachers want to play a role in school decisions to ensure that they can be effective with their students, but it appears that a large number of teachers in Mississippi are not playing a significant role in many decisions that ultimately impact their schools” (21).

In a Jan. 10, 2008 article, “Working Conditions Trump Pay,”  Debra Viadero summarizes the research finding that distress over working conditions, not pay, is the primary reason for teachers leaving schools or refusing to teach in certain settings.

Getting teachers and their instructional leaders on the same page about working conditions is more than just a good idea–it is a necessary step for genuine and sustained improvement in the quality of education for the majority of America’s children.  What good are the reams of test data and student performance indicators if we aren’t going to use them to change the real conditions that keep students and teachers from performing at their best?

Pragmatic optimist that I am, however, I believe we can begin to have some real dialogue among teachers, administrators, as well as parents and students, on how to improve conditions for teaching and learning within our schools and in the schools of the future. For one, the growth of professional learning communities (PLCs) in many PK-12 school settings can help create the kind of learning environment, for the adults in a school building or district, that is conducive to broader collaborations and higher levels of professional respect between teachers and administrators. For another, the growing movement of highly competent and effective classroom teachers who are choosing not to leave the classroom for administrative positions, but rather to seek out hybrid roles within and outside schools as teacher leaders will at some point generate a critical mass that neither administrators nor policy makers can continue to ignore.

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