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Report: Make Improving Teacher Working Conditions a Priority

To boost teacher retention and student achievement at high-poverty schools, states and districts must first look to improve working conditions for teachers, concludes a new report by The Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group. The report profiles five school districts that have focused efforts on bettering teacher support and development—specifically by strengthening leadership and encouraging professional collaboration—and have shown promising or positive gains as a result.

The report follows on the heels of the recent annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which found that teacher satisfaction has dipped to its lowest point since 1989. That annual survey suggested that education budget cuts were to cause, at least in part, for declining morale. It also stated that teachers with high job satisfaction were more likely to say that their school or district provided adequate time for professional development and collaboration than were those with low satisfaction.

The Ed Trust report, entitled "Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning," looks at three districts that implemented long-term programs in high-poverty schools to improve support for teachers and have seen gains in student achievement.

• Ascension Parish Public Schools in Louisiana has been using TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, a school-staffing system that hinges on classroom observations, ongoing professional development, career-ladder opportunities, and performance pay, since 2005;

• In 2008, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina launched its Strategic Staffing Initiative, which is aimed at recruiting stronger principals for high-needs schools and giving them autonomy over hiring and most other school-level decisions;

• And Fresno Unified School District in California introduced the Skillful Leader Project in 2006 to train principals to recognize effective teaching and offer teachers constructive feedback on their instruction.

The report also identified two districts with newer but promising efforts:

• Boston Public Schools recently instituted the Teach Plus T3 Initiative, which aims to develop teacher-leaders who are committed to working in urban schools;

• And Sacramento City Unified School District in California has identified its lowest performers as "Priority Schools," convinced talented principals to serve there for at least three years, and given them autonomy over hiring and immunity from district layoffs.

According to the report, examples such as these are illustrative of the holistic changes schools need to make to create sustainable gains in learning and equity. They "show that moving toward equitable access to quality teaching requires more than simply evaluating teachers more honestly and offering bonuses to terrific teachers who are willing to work in high-poverty schools," the report says. "[W]e need to transform these schools into places that recognize, reward, and support good teaching, routinely provide teachers with opportunities to work with others and hone their craft, and provide expert teachers more opportunities to advance."

The authors acknowledge that many of these initiatives may seem like "common-sense" concepts (better working conditions=happier teachers? No way!), but also contend that attention to them "remains rare." Instead, states have been focused on improving teacher-evaluation systems—an essential first step to improving teacher quality but, the report argues, one that will do nothing to alleviate inequalities for students.

"In too many places, the movement toward educator evaluation seems to be predicated on the belief that if we just identify our strongest teachers, low-performing schools that serve large numbers of poor children and children of color will magically get more of them," the authors write. "Unfortunately our nation's history suggests exactly the opposite."

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