Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Teacher Working Conditions Report, or tell me something I don't know already

One of the little things that irk me about the education profession, public education to be precise, is how they often overstate the obvious while not actually doing anything about a problem. The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality recently published its report to the governor of North Carolina on teacher working conditions. The report, "Teacher Working Conditions are Student Learning Outcomes," can be found in their website at Just from the title, I can tell already that they are pretty much stating the obvious: that you need good working conditions in order for teachers to teach effectively and thus get students to learn (duh). But in the public education arena, you often have to restate the obvious in order to be able to "document it" so you can then say something will be done about it. I am really trying not to be too cynical, but as a former high school teacher who faced some of the conditions described in the report, I am not exactly feeling warm and fuzzy over yet another report. By the way, I learned of the report through the NCTE's newsletter, another one of those items I regularly keep an eye on as a librarian and educator.

As a note, readers can also look at NCTE's page on Teacher Quality at It is a collection of documents and resources. They are most applicable to language arts, but they may still be useful.

So, what does the report say? Usually, you can get the gist of reports like this by reading the executive summary they provide, which is likely what the admininistators and government officials read anyhow, skipping the rest of the report. I read the summary and scanned the rest of the report while working at the Information Desk early in the morning (at least until it gets busy at the desk). Some of the findings then (the cynical remarks after are my own, but I am betting a teacher or two who may have seen this wondered as well):
  1. "Teacher working conditions are important predictors of student achievement." (really?)
  2. "Teacher working conditions makes a difference in teacher retention." (you don't say?)
  3. "Leadership is critical to improving working conditions, but principals and teachers perceive these conditions very differently." (This would not have anything to do with the fact that principals rarely if ever actually step in a classroom, but they are often the first to criticize teachers about their classroom practices, would it?)
There were a total of six key findings, but I think these three give the "flavor" of where the document is going. The executive summary then goes and offers some recommendations for school, district, and state levels. I could simply post a few here and have a field day of how they are likely smoke screens to make themselves feel better since not much will likely get done given the realities of life in education. The introduction to the report cites local research on teacher turnover rates, and it states the usual concern about the cost of turnover in terms of having to hire new teachers and train them for the same job over and over. What I found more illuminating was the cite to the national research about the reasons techers give for leaving the profession, some of which were my reasons to go to graduate school and stick with higher education, a decision I have not regretted since. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my time as a high school teacher, and I had some very good students. But I also had a student try to assault me at one point, and I had to deal with an unsupportive principal and parents who had no clue about how their kids simply did not behave but thought it was my fault. Isn't it interesting that people who would not dream of doing your job love to tell you how to do it? This is specially true in teaching. Anyways, the authors of the report write:

"National research also demonstrates the importance of addressing school conditions to improve teacher retention. Teachers who leave schools cite an opportunity for better teaching assignment, dissatisfaction with support from administrators, and dissatisfaction with workplace conditions as the main reason why they seek other opportunites."

Again, they have not told me anything I did not know already. In my case, I knew I would get a better teaching assignment at the college and university level, that I would not have to put up with an unsupportive principal, and the environment would be better overall. Now before anyone goes saying that I just ran off, I will say I am not the only one for one. The fact that so many teachers of my generation decided to leave the profession of public education for other careers speaks volumes about the poor treatmen we got and continue to get. And in case anyone says he was one of those "lesser teachers" (read here less than qualified or such), I do have a good array of credentials to match in my cv. I get defensive because that is often an assumption made of teachers who leave, and the sad thing is those of us who move on, whether we stay in education or leave altogether, we tend to be a pretty talented bunch. On the other side of the coin, any search in a database will yield plenty of articles about the difficulty of attracting top talent to teaching, which this report addresses as well. Additionally, do note I left before the debacle of No Child Left Behind hit the fan. I was having a conversation with my mother recently, and I told her quite plainly that if I were going to college again for an undergraduate degree, I would not choose school teaching as a career path. The certification requirements have gotten worse, the attitude towards teachers from parents and administrators have gotten worse too, and then there is the whole thing about teaching in "goose stepping" lock step style to meet some test. Not what I envision teaching to be, but I won't go there.

And don't even mention the additional burdens if you are a male teacher, and some student decides to make an allegation against you for harrasment. Let me digress here briefly.Not that there are not teachers out there who do terrible things to kids, but in the cases where the accusation is false, a good life is destroyed, and the one making the accusation gets away with it. Again, not the kind of thing worth the effort. If anyone out there wants to read a good and well written book on what happens when a student makes an allegation of misconduct against a teacher, I recommend Rumors, Lies, and Whispers: Classroom "Crush" or Career Catastrophe by Mary Ann Manos. I had an idea, but this book clearly and extensively explains what exactly happens, and it details how the school and the district will basically abandon a teacher the moment a student makes the allegation. If true, such teachers should be punished to the fullest possible (I think LeTourneau got off easy), but if false, the accusers should be punished severely as well for even if proven innocent, a teacher's life was ruined. Simply too much aggravation for someone like me to worry about, not worth the risk. Hard numbers on the students making false accusations for retribution are rare to come by, but the author does provide good evidence with what is available. If you are a teacher in pretraining, read this book. It is the type of thing no one tells preservice teachers that they need to know about.

Second, I stayed within the education profession because I do believe in teaching and sharing knowledge and ideas with student. At the university level, the conditions are a lot better, and the students actually want to be there. And even though I am a librarian now, an academic librarian does a lot of teaching in various forms, so I have the best of both worlds in my estimation. I love teaching very much; I just hate what politicians and people with no real clue have made of it. And I find it annoying educational "experts" have to be hired to write reports like this one that state the obvious just to make a case that should be evident. Well, should be evident if they value the education of their children as much as they say they do. And here goes another book recommendation, this one on why teachers should be paid more and valued more overall. The $100,000 Teacher: A Teacher's Solution to America's Declining Public School System by Brian Crosby. Yes, it does say 100K; the author argues teachers as professionals should be paid like a doctor or an engineer. However, he also argues for teachers to adopt better standards, to behave like the professionals they are, and he gives other constructive solutions as well. It makes for interesting reading. Better reading than yet another report written by "experts." Then again, the book was written by a teacher.

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