Common-sense strategies for improving working conditions in high-poverty, low-performing schools are critical to attracting, keeping strong teachers

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New report highlights five school districts focused on building the culture essential to boosting job satisfaction among teachers, improving outcomes for struggling students

Publication date: 
June 27 2012

WASHINGTON (June 27, 2012) — Much attention has been paid in recent years to developing meaningful teacher evaluation systems as a strategy to improve public education, and rightly so. But while states and districts implement better ways to identify their strongest educators, too many are giving short shrift to the culture and work environments in schools – particularly in high-poverty and low-performing schools – that make them satisfying and attractive places to work.

A new report released by The Education Trust, Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning, outlines the need to pair efforts to improve outdated, inadequate teacher evaluation systems with the policy and culture changes that must accompany them. The report also highlights common-sense strategies some school districts employ to help low-performing schools identify, attract, nurture, and keep talented teachers.

“Making evaluations more meaningful is a critical step toward improving our schools. But being able to determine who our strongest teachers and principals are doesn’t mean that struggling students will magically get more of them,” said Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust and co-author of the report. “We have to be intentional about creating the kinds of supportive working environments in our high-poverty and low-performing schools that will make them more attractive to our strongest teachers.”

Despite widespread assumptions that students are the primary cause of teacher dissatisfaction, research shows that the culture of the school – particularly the quality of school leadership and level of staff cohesion – actually matters more to teachers’ job satisfaction and retention, particularly in high-poverty schools, than do the demographics of the students or teacher salaries. When teachers have positive perceptions about their work environment, that translates to better outcomes for students. And as expectations rise across the country for both teachers and students, more supportive working conditions are exactly what hard-working educators say they need to reach those higher standards.

“The Education Trust’s latest report validates what every teacher knows is necessary to strengthen public schools and the teaching profession,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “Building a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among teachers, principals and administrators; focusing on continuous professional development for teachers; and ensuring teachers have the time, tools and trust they need to improve teaching and learning are essential ingredients to building strong public schools and a quality teaching force.”

Some school districts across the country have recognized the power that lies in improving the conditions for teaching and learning that shape school culture, and they are undertaking promising practices to make those improvements in their most challenging schools. For example:

  • To improve its lowest performing schools, Ascension Parish School System in southern Louisiana implemented a comprehensive approach to providing educators with meaningful, ongoing feedback, combined with the support they needed and time allotted during the regular school day to work together and reflect on instructional practice. Once teachers saw that more rigorous performance evaluations were used primarily to improve practice, rather than as a punitive tool, most embraced the new culture of shared learning and responsibility and teacher satisfaction improved, as did student achievement. “We have turned a corner where when you ask teachers to come to these schools, they say it is an honor,” said Jennifer Tuttleton, Ascension Parish’s director of school improvement.
  • “Our leaders were not equipped to support teachers,” said Fresno (Calif.) Unified School District’s administrator of leadership development, Julie Severns. So they embarked on a district-wide effort to develop school principals as strong instructional leaders, helping them – and the administrators who supervised them – learn how to recognize effective teaching practices and provide classroom educators with concrete feedback to guide their professional growth. They also focused on building professional learning communities among teachers so that they, too, could become comfortable analyzing data to improve their practice. Edward Gomes, principal of Fresno’s Yosemite Middle School, believes focusing first on developing principals’ instructional leadership helped give these efforts more credibility with teachers, particulary in a time of myriad reforms.
  • While the specifics of each district’s approach are different, both Sacramento City (Calif.) Unified School District and Charlotte-Mecklenberg (N.C.) Public Schools focused on persuading some of their strongest school leaders to take on the challenge of turning around the lowest performing schools in their districts. School leaders were asked to make a minimum three-year commitment, and given more autonomy over school-level decisions, flexibility in developing their own action plans, and the opportunity to build their own leadership teams – in exchange for stronger results. Educators feel proud to work in these schools, because of the team spirit and professionalism that are now part of their cultures. “It’s a badge of honor to work in the Priority Schools,” said Mary Shelton, Sacramento City’s chief accountability officer.
  • Boston Public Schools worked to attract and retain strong teachers to its lowest performing schools by providing them with opportunities for shared decision making and career growth through formal teacher leadership roles. In collaboration with Teach Plus, an organization created by educators to improve urban students' access to effective teachers, Boston implemented a model that trains teacher-leaders and empowers them to help drive cooperative instructional improvement within each school. In addition, many of the teacher-leaders selected were already working in the targeted schools. “It’s a collaboration between the teachers and the administrators, rather than the two parts working sepa-rately,” said Megan Struckel, a teacher at one of the turnaround schools. “It’s the way education should be, because we’re all working toward the same thing.”

“When I was a classroom teacher, my colleagues and I wanted and needed strong support from school leadership and from each other,” said Almy. “Now that we have evaluations that let us know who the strongest teachers are, we must create conditions to ensure that the students who are most in need of those teachers are able to get them.”

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