** Republished here in the Washington Post
Our guest authors today are Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay. Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University. Papay is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. In 2015, they received the American Educational Research Association Palmer O. Johnson Memorial Award for the research discussed in this essay.
When you study education policy, the inevitable question about what you do for a living always gets the conversation going. Controversies over teachers unions, charter schools, and standardized testing provide plenty of fodder for lively debates. People often are eager to share their own experiences about individual teachers who profoundly shaped their lives or were less than inspiring.
A large body of research confirms this common experience – teachers have large effects on students’ learning, and some teachers are far more effective than others. What is largely absent in these conversations, and in the scholarly literature, is a recognition of how these teachers are also supported or constrained by the organizational contexts in which they teach.
The absence of an organizational perspective on teacher effectiveness leads to narrow dinner conversations and misinformed policy. We tend to ascribe teachers’ career decisions to the students they teach rather than the conditions in which they work. We treat teachers as if their effectiveness is mostly fixed, always portable, and independent of school context. As a result, we rarely complement personnel reforms with organizational reforms that could benefit both teachers and students.
An emerging body of research now shows that the contexts in which teachers work profoundly shape teachers’ job decisions and their effectiveness. Put simply, teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates, than their peers in less-supportive environments. And, what appear to matter most about the school context are not the traditional working conditions we often think of, such as modern facilities and well-equipped classrooms. Instead, aspects that are difficult to observe and measure seem to be most influential, including the quality of relationships and collaboration among staff, the responsiveness of school administrators, and the academic and behavioral expectations for students.
School Context and Teacher Turnover
Schools are complex organizations. Classic studies by Dan Lortie and Susan Moore Johnson, based on intensive observations and interviews, bring to life the “constellation” of organizational features that shape teachers’ and students’ daily experiences.
In recent years, large scale teacher surveys have provided researchers with new data to quantify these organizational features. These data have revealed that the high rates of teacher turnover we observe in schools that serve large populations of low-income and minority students are largely explained by the poor working conditions in these schools – not the students they serve. Figure 1 demonstrates how, in Massachusetts, teachers are over three times more likely to report intentions to transfer away from a school with poor working conditions (bottom percentiles) than one with strong working conditions (top percentiles). The finding that teachers’ views of their working conditions are strong predictors of whether or not they stay in a school has been replicated in a wide range districts and states, including Massachusetts, as we show in the figure below, as well as California, North Carolina, New York City, and Chicago.
School Context and Teacher Development
In supportive schools, teachers not only tend to stay, but they also improve at much greater rates over time. In a recent study, we tracked teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for up to ten years and examined how their individual effectiveness (as measured by contributions to student achievement) changed over time. As shown below (Figure 2), we found that teachers working in schools with strong professional environments improved, over 10 years, 38 percent more than teachers in schools with weak professional environments.
Here, we used six measures drawn from teacher surveys to characterize the environment: consistent order and discipline; opportunities for peer collaboration; supportive principal leadership; effective professional development; a school culture characterized by trust; and a fair teacher evaluation process providing meaningful feedback. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt have since used a similar research design to show that teachers in Miami-Dade County Public Schools improved at substantially faster rates in schools where effective collaboration takes place through instructional teams.
How should policymakers and practitioners act on these findings?
These findings, and a growing body of evidence, make clear that the school context matters a great deal for teachers and, as a result, for their students. Furthermore, school contexts are not set in stone – new evidence documents that working conditions in schools can improve over time, and that teachers are responsive to these changes. However, simply saying that contexts matter and can change does not give policymakers and practitioners clear guidance about how to strengthen organizational practices in schools. Although the collective and interpersonal nature of school contexts makes quick policy fixes unlikely to succeed, research suggests several concrete ways in which educators and policymakers can take on this challenge.
A recent study within Susan Moore Johnson’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard University (of which we were a part) provides some potentially promising levers. The study involved in-depth case studies of teachers’ experiences in six high-poverty, high-minority, urban public schools. Across the schools, teachers spoke about how specific supports facilitated their ability to succeed with their students. Teachers described the value of establishing an orderly, disciplined learning environment, student support services to attend to social and emotional needs, and efforts to engage parents. Furthermore, research suggests that peer collaboration, feedback (from both peers and administrators), and instructional support can all be effective tools for building strong work environments and promoting teacher development.
Importantly, school principals play a key role in establishing productive professional environments in schools. They are the ones who establish these organizational supports and build school-wide cultures. Hiring principals who have the ability to identify organizational weaknesses, establish school-wide systems to support teachers and students, and galvanize the collective buy-in and involvement of all teachers is a central lever for improving the teaching and learning environment.
Analyses of large-scale teacher surveys confirm what educators and qualitative researchers have long known, school contexts matter. We hope this new evidence will push public debate and policy about education reform to recognize and be responsive to this reality of working in schools. It’s time to change the conversation.