A new study identifies four aspects of the school environment that help retain effective teachers and lift student test scores in math.
Those factors are: a principal who promotes professional development for teachers, collaborative relationships among teachers, a safe and orderly learning environment, and high expectations for academic achievement among students.
“In recent years, researchers and policymakers have focused much of their attention on measuring and improving teacher effectiveness,” says Matthew A. Kraft, assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University and lead author of the study. “However, teachers do not work in a vacuum; their school’s climate can either enhance or undermine their ability to succeed with students.”
Using data from the Department of Education’s School Survey, researchers looking at teacher and student responses as well as student test scores, human resources data, and school administrative records for 278 public middle schools in New York City for the years 2008 to 2012.
“Using annual school survey data allowed us to explore, for the first time, how changes in the quality of individual school climates were linked to corresponding changes in teacher turnover and student achievement over several years,” Kraft says.
The researchers examined changes over time in leadership and professional development, high academic expectations for students, teacher relationships and collaboration, and school safety and order.
They found robust relationships between increases in all four dimensions of school climate and decreases in teacher turnover, suggesting that improving the environment in which teachers work could play an important role in retaining effective teachers.
The average turnover rate in New York City middle schools is 15 percent, meaning that out of every 100 middle schools teachers in New York City, only 85 return to teach in the same school the next year. Of those 15 that don’t return, nine leave teaching in the city’s public schools altogether and six transfer to teach in another New York City public school.
Math scores improve, too
Further, improving a school’s climate may help promote gains in students’ academic achievement. Improvements in two dimensions—school safety and academic expectations—predicted faster growth in math test scores.
“The degree to which students and teachers feel their school is a safe, orderly learning environment is of central importance for student achievement in the New York City middle schools we studied,” the authors write.
These findings “replicate and extend previous research findings that schools with higher-quality school contexts have students who experience larger achievement gains,” the researchers write. They also note that organizational improvements that take place over time correspond with increases in student achievement gains.
The study has policy implications that extend beyond individual classrooms to evaluations of school-wide organizational effectiveness, Kraft says.
“When aspects of the school context—for example, a principal who is an ineffective instructional leader, a school that lacks a consistent disciplinary code—are partly, or largely to blame for poor performance, efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to be adequate remedies in themselves,” the authors write.
What school leaders can do
To address shortfalls in opportunities for professional development, collaborative relationships among teachers, school safety and security, and clearly articulated academic expectations, district leaders and principals could produce customized reports on teachers’ perceptions of schools’ organizational contexts in order to address specific organizational weaknesses.
Further, school leaders with strengths in particular areas could be matched to schools with corresponding administrative or organizational weaknesses, using the four dimensions that most impacted the learning and teaching environment to promote teacher retention and spur improved student performance on standardized tests.
William H. Marinell, chief of learning and innovation in the Southbridge, Massachusetts, school district, and Darrick Shen-Yee, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are coauthors of the study in the American Educational Research Journal.
Source: Brown University