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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

(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.

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