Improving Teaching Conditions

Teachers and students are back in K-12 schools but the negative effects of the pandemic on schools are just beginning to be documented. We generally know that less students showed up to schools, less teachers renewed their contracts, and less applications for teacher preparation were received. For examples of more specific deterioration of school conditions, the Government Accounting Office’s survey of K-12 teachers reported that in the school year 2020-2021:

We estimate that nearly half (48 percent) of public elementary and secondary school teachers
nationwide had at least one student who was registered but never showed up for class during
the 2020-21 school year, according to our teacher survey. Of these teachers, nearly three quarters (72 percent) said this was more than in a typical year. Based on these data, we estimate that at least 1.1 million students were unaccounted for…


Negative Conditions for Teachers

With an average starting salary of $38,000 and only 20% minority teachers in a K-12 system that has 50% minority student attendance, teachers are hard pressed to make a good case for their conditions. Teachers also report that approximately 15% of their fellow teachers are not yet qualified to teach, only 30% feel a sense of collegiality, and only 50% report that they get administrative support. Coming out of a lock-down pandemic, stuck with decaying buildings and broken collegiality, and needing more support than they are receiving , schools are at a low point in the types of conditions that lead to excellent teaching.

Teaching Conditions Have Not Changed in 20 Years

It would be easier to discuss this topic if it wasn’t so longstanding. For at least 20 years we have not been able to accomplish some of the most basic school fixes. For example, review this report from 2003 on the suggested improvements of teacher working conditions in New York State:

When teachers leave, they tend to migrate to other teaching jobs or leave the profession altogether. Understanding why they leave and where they go can aid in determining how to retain the best and most promising. In a study of why teachers moved or migrated, the following basic improvements in workforce conditions were noted

Birkeland, Johnson, 2003
  • Appropriate work assignments: new teachers often get the least desirable classrooms and the most challenging students.
  • Sufficient curriculum guidelines: the teaching subject matches the teacher qualifications and curriculum materials, and teacher guides are available.
  • Efficient discipline systems: consistent, school-wide behavior policies exist and focus on classroom learning.
  • Good communication with parents: parents are involved in the hiring process, and the school encourages various types of participation for parents.
  • Sharing ideas and resources with colleagues: opportunities to interact with other professionals and improve teaching skills.
  • Respect and support from administrators: principals provide supervision, instructional guidance, and express confidence in their teachers.
  • Opportunities for professional development: teachers are encouraged to try innovative approaches and seek professional growth.

Three Policy Ideas for Improving the Current Conditions of Teaching

In addition to the policy ideas listed above from twenty years ago, three ideas for policy makers to effectively construct a more comprehensive plan for improving teaching conditions might include:

  • Improving teachers is usually done on a potentially superficial timeframe where teachers are given training once a month during the school year. A better idea here is to create a more comprehensive plan for professional development of each teacher that provides them with time each day to change and improve their instructional leadership.
  • This instructional leadership plan would include time with other teachers in teams where research shows that teachers learn best. Daily meetings with team members is much more likely to show results in the classroom.
  • This comprehensive plan would also link teachers, teacher-teams, principals, and parents to school improvement. If we are all in better communication, working more closely on the most important ideas, the needed results in student achievement are likely to be more tangible.

A focus on teacher improvement that elevates their conditions for working is a very promising policy change. Fully implementing this policy change would go a long way to improving our schools.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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