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A culture of improvement: How changes to teachers’ working conditions influence student outcomes

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David Weston, CEO, Teacher Development Trust, UK
Bethan Hindley, Head of Leadership Delivery, Teacher Development Trust, UK
Maria Cunningham, Regional Delivery Lead, Education Endowment Foundation, UK

Multiple teams of researchers have made significant efforts to summarise the research on the process and content of teacher professional development. However, these reviews, due to their methodology, tend to put less emphasis on how teachers’ working conditions relate to their ability to raise student outcomes. To improve schools, we need to better understand how the context in which a teacher works affects their student outcomes. 

This article makes the claim that there is a consistent and robust association between teachers’ working conditions and student attainment, and outlines the core aspects of those working conditions that seem to be most clearly associated with improving student attainment for school leaders to consider.

Learning does not only happen in formal training or in structured processes. The amount of learning that takes place depends significantly on a teacher’s working conditions: the organisational team culture, the approach to leadership, the types of collaboration, the effectiveness of communication and the sharing (or not) of goals and values. This idea prompted the Teacher Development Trust’s recent paper, ‘A culture of improvement: reviewing the research on teacher working conditions’ (Weston et al., 2021). 

Methodology

For this research, we reviewed 30 papers on teacher working conditions and school leadership for impact upon students, then summarised our findings from some of the major studies in order to inform teachers’ and leaders’ practice. This was not intended to be exhaustive nor systematic, but rather a scoping review that might lay the groundwork for a future, more systematic review. 

We looked in particular depth at 14 studies of teacher working conditions – 12 from the USA, one from Australia and one from a range of international schools across Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – that use survey data to identify what is happening in teachers’ professional environments and how this correlates with individual student achievement change or average school attainment change. Some look across multiple years and get closer to causal conclusions, while others are briefer snapshots that can only find correlations. 

For our initial working definition of teacher working conditions, we began with the six elements identified by Kraft and Papay (2014) and then looked for studies where some or all of these same elements appeared. We identified where other key elements also appeared across the papers, and subsequently redefined and regrouped certain concepts. One of the six Kraft and Papay elements, ‘professional development time and resources’, appeared too few times across the literature to include in our own list.

We also reviewed additional experimental and observational evidence on teacher allocation, and a number of reviews of literature on school leadership, school turnaround, collaboration, self-efficacy and response to COVID-19.

Findings

1: The quality of teachers’ working conditions is strongly associated with student attainment and there are tentative signs of a causal link 

Kraft and Papay (2014, p. 1) suggest that working conditions are associated with the difference between teachers plateauing in effectiveness or improving continually: 

On average, teachers working in schools at the 75th percentile of professional environment ratings improved 38% more than teachers in schools at the 25th percentile after ten years.

The studies we reviewed mainly focus on English/reading and/or mathematics, as these are the most commonly assessed subjects at state or national level; however, some studies cross other subjects. For example, Eells’ (2011) meta-analysis of the impact of teacher collective efficacy found similar associations across maths, reading, writing, science and social studies.

The studies consistently show a positive correlation between working conditions and students’ academic outcomes, and this is consistent across years and areas (Kraft and Papay, 2014; Eells, 2011).

Three of the studies come closer to finding causality, including that of Sebastian et al. (2016, p. 93), who find that 

Fostering a strong school climate through teacher leadership appears to be the key mediating mechanism through which leadership is related to student achievement, and a second mediating process through which elementary school principals influence student achievement is through the quality and coherence of programs offered in the school – professional development, curriculum, and instruction.

The challenge in finding definitive causality in this field is that there is no reliable, controlled way of ‘switching on and off’ either aspects of the working conditions or the way in which leaders lead. 

2: The extent to which leaders actively foster these working conditions is associated with school improvement. 

Liebowitz and Porter’s (2019, p. 1) major systematic review of 42 high-quality studies of school leadership concluded that there is 

direct evidence of the relationship between principal behaviors and student achievement (0.09–0.17 standard deviations), teacher well-being (0.34 SD), teacher instructional practices (0.34 SD), and school organizational health (0.69 SD).

Helal and Coelli’s decade-long study of 1,500 schools in Victoria, Australia (2016) found that four aspects of principals’ leadership of working conditions were associated with student attainment, including fostering and communicating shared goals, professional development, and (more tentatively) building morale and creating effective teacher collaboration. 

3: There are some core aspects of teachers’ working conditions that seem to be most clearly associated with improving student attainment

Across the studies, these aspects vary in statistical significance. However, the common emerging aspects of teachers’ working conditions that are associated with improved student attainment (Table 1) appear to be:

  1. creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments
  2. involving teachers in whole-school planning, decision-making and improvement
  3. creating a culture of mutual trust, respect and enthusiasm, in which communication is open and honest
  4. building a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning,
  5. facilitating classroom safety and behaviour, where disruption and bullying are very rare and teachers feel strongly supported by senior leaders in their efforts to maintain this classroom environment.
Table 1: Aspects of teachers’ working conditions most clearly associated with improvements in student outcomes
Study Aspect of teacher working conditions
1
Collaboration
2
Involvement
3
Trust & Openness
4
Shared goals
5
Behaviour & Safety
Burns et al. (2017) (✔) (✔)
Goddard et al. (2015) (✔) (✔) (✔)
Grissom et al. (2013)
Helal and Coelli (2016) (✔) (✔)
Hoy et al. (1998) (✔) (✔)
Johnson et al. (2012) (✔) (✔)
Kraft and Papay (2014) (✔) (✔) (✔)
Kraft et al. (2016) (✔)
Ladd (2011) (⚪) (⚪) (⚪) (✔)
Lee and Louis (2019) (✔)
Lee et al. (2019)
Ronfeldt et al. (2015) (✔)
Sebastian et al. (2016) (✔) (✔) (✔) (✔)
TNTP (2012) (✔) (✔)

Key to correlations with student attainment or school growth:

positive correlation 

(✔) part of a wider construct with positive correlation 

no statistically significant correlation

(⚪) part of a wider construct that is shown to have no statistically significant correlation 

4: The allocation of teachers to teams, classes and subjects and the provision of experienced and effective colleagues appear to be associated with improved student attainment

Four papers independently find evidence that students’ learning improves while their teacher is paired with a more effective colleague with whom they have opportunities to work together and give/receive feedback (Papay et al., 2016; Jackson and Bruegmann, 2009; Sun et al., 2017; Goldhaber et al., 2020). This appears to be consistent with Kraft et al.’s 2018 review into instructional coaching, where pairing teachers in a coaching relationship with chances for observation and feedback appears beneficial, as well as other activities such as co-planning.

The effect is substantial. Jackson and Bruegmann (2009, p. 106) note that ‘for both math and reading, the quality of a teacher’s peers the year before, and even two years before, affect her current students’ achievement. For both subjects, the importance of a teacher’s previous peers is as great as, or greater than, that of her current peers.’

Furthermore, Kini et al. (2016) suggest that teachers accumulate effectiveness if allowed to spend multiple years working on similar topics/subjects and year groups. The major implication of this fourth finding is that consideration of teachers’ working conditions should include a focus on how teachers are allocated to teams, classes and subjects.

Conclusion

This initial analysis of the existing research suggests that schools improve when leaders proactively foster teachers’ working conditions, and there is emerging evidence to suggest that leaders who successfully take action to improve these conditions have a causal impact upon student attainment. 

As a result, teachers should consider lobbying for greater provision and leadership of the five aspects outlined in this article, on the grounds that they will not only improve their experience of the profession but also, crucially, improve student outcomes.

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