Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In the Mind of Teachers: Measuring Commitment

Many of my clients are anxious to learn about how their teachers really feel. Principals typically feel as if they know whether teachers are generally pleased or not with their current lot. But, if their teachers are unhappy, just how unhappy are they? If their teachers are highly committed, how highly committed are they? And most importantly, if school leadership is focused on a massive school improvement initiative, how successful can they be if their teachers are marginally committed to the school?

The methodology for conducting this sort of research is not as easy as it may seem.

First, designing appropriate ways to ask the question is important. You can’t just ask “How committed to our school are you on a scale of 1 to 10”. The way individuals assess this questions is so variable that you see wild swings in the numbers because, frankly, this is poorly structured questions. But the fact remains, the only way to know for sure is to ask; we just need to be sure the questions are structured properly.

Second, one question won’t usually suffice – particularly with one broad, straightforward topic like “Commitment”. We use a survey design tool that we like to call “question layering”. By layering multiple, related questions on the respondent, we get a better sense of the strength of his/her feelings on a larger spectrum.

Lastly, we rely heavily on measuring results using norm data. Knowing how happy or unhappy a group of teachers is becomes relevant only when we know that measure in relation to a similar but different group of individuals.

If school leadership is focused on a massive school improvement initiative, how successful can they be if their teachers are marginally committed to the school?

In our research, when asked the question “I am committed to seeing my school succeed” very few teachers disagree with that statement. We use a 5-point Likert scale from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree” for questions like this. If teachers, en masse, disagree with this statement then we have a big problem. But the truth is, once in a while you will get a teacher who will mark the questions “Neutral” or “Disagree” which is spurious, outlying data that we can typically discount. We almost always (98% of the time) see teachers rate this item favorably “Agree” or “Strongly Agree” with this questions.

This makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you be committed to seeing your school succeed? What kind of teacher would you have to be to “Disagree” with this statement? Probably an unhappy one who we all hope will find more luck in another field of work. The problem with this item is that it is of little use to us unless the results are different between our study group and our norm data. So we keep asking questions.

The next question in this series we will sometimes ask is “I am proud to be a member of my school”. This also a question that most teachers have a difficult time rating as anything besides “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”. Again, this makes sense given how closely teachers identify with their peers and students. Furthermore, the question doesn’t delve into particular hot spots that may be top of mind for teachers (pay, accountability, etc.) and, in avoiding these topics, makes in fairly easy to agree in schools where the culture is strong.

However, in schools with toxic cultures, this is where we begin to see the cracks. In a typical school it will be rare to see more that 2 to 5 percent rate this item anything other than “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”. But in schools with a toxic culture the level of agreement begins to deteriorate and it shows up loud-and-clear in survey data.

Individuals think little of dedicating themselves to a flawed organization but they will stop well short of recommending that organization to others.

The next “layer” in a well-devised commitment series of questions will be the deciding factor of whether the school has a positive culture or a toxic culture: “I would recommend my school to a friend seeking employment.” The psychology behind this question is interesting: individuals think little of dedicating themselves to a flawed organization but they will stop well short of recommending that organization to others. Thus, the results on this item are much less positive even in schools with a strong, positive culture. This illustrates the concept of “layering” question quite well. Agreeing with each question becomes, even in a positive environment, progressively more difficult. Average schools may have 15% to 20% of respondents “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” with this statement. This is much higher than the first two layers but still within the realm of acceptable.

The real difference comes when we look at the results of the school with the toxic culture. On the first two questions, even schools with a fairly negative climate and culture will still rate favorable. No so with item #3. Teacher will stop short here. They will not recommend their school (with its negative environment) to their friends. It is not unusually to see 30+% of teachers “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree” with this statement. This is strongly indictment on the culture of that school. While 30% might not seem like a lot on an absolute basis (Hey, it’s less than a third), we only see negatives responses of this magnitude on this item in schools with some significant climate and culture issues.

If you are in a school leadership role at one of those schools, you are no doubt asking yourself what you should do to change. What might be cause your cultural problems? How might you improve school climate? However, the results of even the best survey remain murky. More research is needed to determine the cause of the organizational distress -- ideally with formal and informal discussions with teachers. We recommend facilitated focus groups in extreme circumstances.

The drivers of these culture problems are vastly complex. Too often, principals either refuse to acknowledge culture and climate problems within their schools, or they jump to conclusion as to its cause. Take time. Figure it out. Talk it though. React slowly and positively. If the problems stem from fatigue related to your change initiative, perhaps you can reevaluate your timeline. Or you can rack up culture as a price worth paying for you change initiative. No one can tell you the answer. But by asking questions, correctly, school leaders can gain some valuable insight into the minds of their teachers.

Scott Wallace is the Executive Director of the National Center for School Leadership. To learn more about their services and how they can help you assess school culture, visit their website at http://www.ncfsl.org