A new report from the Education Trust argues that efforts to improve the quality of individual teachers, such as building and implementing new systems for evaluating teachers, will do little to boost student achievement—especially for low-income students and students of color—unless states and districts also pay attention to the environments in which teachers work. The report, Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning, identifies school leadership and staff cohesion as two school factors that play significant roles in whether a teacher stays or leaves and profiles five districts around the country that have recognized the “power of school culture” in attracting, developing, and keeping strong teachers in high-need schools.1
According to the report, thirty-two states have made changes to the performance evaluation systems they use for teachers and twenty-three of those require teacher evaluations to include objective evidence of student learning. It calls these policy changes a “welcome recognition” of the power of effective teachers and the damaging impact of ineffective teachers, but the report notes that these changes do not include school and district policy and culture changes, nor do they attempt to end the longstanding practice of assigning the weakest teachers to the students with the steepest learning challenges.
“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 coauthor 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.”
The report acknowledges that there are many working conditions that matter to teachers and affect their levels of satisfaction and retention, but it finds that school leadership and staff cohesion “consistently emerge in research as especially important to teachers.” It argues that satisfaction with school leadership, “more than any other school factor,” impacts teachers’ overall job satisfaction and whether a teacher stays or leaves the profession. As evidence, the report points to studies of high-performing, high-poverty schools serving large concentrations of students of color finding that school leaders who “create a shared mission, focus on student achievement, and uphold a commitment to teacher learning can grow, attract, and retain effective teachers.”
Staff cohesion also matters to teachers, the report finds. “Similar to most professionals, teachers want to engage with their colleagues to share successes and challenges and to feel supported and motivated by a larger school community,” the report reads.
School leadership and staff cohesion are especially meaningful to teachers in high-poverty schools. Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2007–08 Schools and Staffing Survey, a nationally representative teacher survey, the report finds that teachers in low-poverty schools who are unhappy with both leadership and staff cohesion are just as likely to stay as those who are happy. However, teachers in high-poverty schools who are dissatisfied with both conditions are less likely to stay than those who are satisfied. “Improved conditions in high-poverty schools shouldn’t translate into universal retention—not all teachers will be successful in these settings, but addressing these elements is especially important for high-poverty schools as part of their efforts to retain their strongest teachers,” the report notes.
Building and Sustaining Talent acknowledges that there is no “silver bullet” strategy for ensuring equitable access to effective teachers for low-income students, but it does offer steps that school districts and states can take to promote teaching environments that attract, sustain, and retain quality teachers in high-need schools.
The report offers various ways that districts can pursue this work, but it says that they must “first and foremost” use available data to understand the distribution of their teachers and make equitable access to top teachers an “absolute priority.” To make all schools places where good teachers want to work, the report suggests that districts do the following:
- Recruit talented school leaders to highest-need schools and get them to stay.
- Put in place teacher and school-leader evaluation systems that differentiate educator effectiveness in order to identify top-performing teachers and leaders.
- Provide teachers in the highest-need schools with meaningful professional growth and career ladders as well as opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.
- Avoid isolating the most effective teachers; instead, build teams of highly effective teachers in the most challenging schools.
- Recruit new school leaders and teachers to high-need schools and develop the skills and instructional abilities of existing employees.
- Implement a tool to measure teacher perceptions of their teaching environment and use data from it to identify target schools and determine primary issues that need addressing.
- Once better evaluations are in place, make working conditions data part of school and district-leader evaluations.
Noting that the difficult task of improving teaching environments primarily rests with districts, the report says that states must create a policy environment that removes barriers undermining this goal. Specifically, it identifies three policy barriers that often exacerbate inequities in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty schools: (1) staffing systems that rely solely on seniority; (2) arduous processes for dismissing poor-performing teachers; and (3) structures that prohibit building level autonomy over schedules and staffing assignments. The report says that states should also monitor data on equitable access to effective teachers between and within districts and require action when inequities exist, as well as hold innovative districts and schools up as examples of best practices.
“For too long, the high levels of staff dissatisfaction and turnover that characterize [the highest-poverty and lowest-performing] schools have been erroneously attributed to their students,” the report concludes. “But research continues to demonstrate that students are not the problem. What matters most are the conditions for teaching and learning.”
The complete report is available at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/Building_and_Sustaining_Talent.pdf.
1 The five school districts profiled in the report are Ascension Parish Public Schools (LA); Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (NC); Fresno Unified School District (CA); Boston Public Schools (MA); and Sacramento City Unified School District (CA).