Results of a study released last week by the Association of Texas Professional Educators should come as no surprise to superintendents.
Conducted by Ed Fuller, a researcher in the educational administration department at the University of Texas at Austin, the statewide study showed that students in affluent white schools are more likely to be taught by an experienced, highly qualified teacher than those in poor and minority schools.
To measure teacher quality, Fuller created a Teacher Quality Index based on measures such as years of experience, certification status, academic ability and even stability at a school.
The major findings of the study are:
- Even after controlling for prior achievement, student demographics and geographic location, teacher quality at the school level is associated with student achievement – especially at the secondary level.
- At the elementary level, teacher quality appears to be more equitably distributed than at the secondary level, but this is more likely a result of the combination of a lack of detailed data and the greater supply of elementary teachers than the result of any state or district policies to equalize teacher quality across schools.
- Students in lower-performing schools have substantially less access to teacher quality than students in higher-performing schools.
- At all school levels, but particularly at middle and high school, students in high-poverty and predominantly minority schools have far less access to teacher quality than students in low-poverty and predominantly white schools.
It’s a challenge for school leaders. Educators know that nothing matters more to a child’s performance than the quality of the teacher in the classroom, yet convincing your best and brightest to teach in the most challenging settings can be difficult.
Teachers at an urban school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood often face overwhelming obstacles, especially compared to their peers at affluent schools.
Their jobs are more difficult, in many cases their commute is farther and their hours are likely longer, yet in most cases they get the same pay.
Fuller says it’s difficult to suggest positive changes at a time when an increase in education funding seems impossible – in fact, cuts are looming – but there are things school district leaders can do to foster teacher quality, which can vary not just district-to-district, but school-to-school within the same district.
“You can look at the working conditions in those low-performing schools and try to address that,” Fuller said.
Fuller advocates paying an extra stipend to teachers who choose to go to hard-to-staff schools, obviously a strategy that requires more money. It’s a program many districts are trying out. Fuller emphasized that the stipends have to be more than marginal to make a difference in recruitment and retention. An extra $1,500, he says, won’t cut it.
Even if districts can afford a healthy stipend – say, $7,000 to $10,000 - Fuller said leaders have to address working conditions or teachers won’t stay. That means hiring an effective principal that inspires loyalty in his teachers, and treats those teachers with trust and respect. Trust, Fuller said, fosters an environment where teachers feel they can be innovative.
Fuller said he’s conducted working condition studies in seven states and consistently the findings showed that the principals had a more positive perception of their own behavior than the teachers. For example, when the principals are asked whether they seek input from teachers, the answer was usually yes. But at many of those same schools, the teachers overwhelmingly answered no.
Fuller said working condition studies can provide valuable information for superintendents. He asks questions like: Do teachers feel supported? Are they motivated to buy into the school vision? Are they being involved in the school’s mission? Is the principal providing an atmosphere of trust and respect?
“That’s how you improve education, you create a team that supports each other,” Fuller said. “We don’t teach that in principal prep programs. We don’t even talk about it.”
Fuller also talked about the importance of equity in facilities and pointed to a mountain of research that has linked the effect of the condition of facilities to human performance, but conceded that addressing that also costs money.
He circled back to the point of collaboration and building a good team with quality leadership – at the principal level and beyond. Fuller is just finishing up a principal survey aimed at studying effective school leadership and preparation. The survey was commissioned by TASA, TEPSA, TASSP, ATPE and UCEA.
“It looks like one of the most important predictors of principal retention is the leadership behavior of the superintendent and/or the immediate supervisor of the principal,” Fuller said. “If superintendents can model the kind of collaborative behavior that creates good working conditions then it’s more likely their principals will follow that lead…There’s no cost to that.”