Editor’s Note: Since interviews and the picture for this story were completed, John Cordle has retired as Augusta Independent school district superintendent and Lisa McCane, then principal at Augusta High School, has taken over as superintendent.
By Susan Riddell
Kentucky educators are transforming their perceptions into plans for school improvement.
Last school year, state teachers and administrators had the opportunity to make their opinions known on various school issues by responding to the TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Kentucky survey. More than 42,000 educators across the commonwealth filled out the anonymous online questionnaire regarding working conditions.
Questions on the survey pertained to time; facilities and resources; community support and involvement; managing student conduct; teacher leadership; school leadership; professional development; instructional practices and support; and new teacher support.
Augusta Independent school district is one of 19 districts that had a 100 percent participation rate on the survey.
Even though the district is small, with just 28 teachers on staff, Augusta High School Principal Lisa McCane said her district would have had 100 percent participation even with a much larger staff.
“Being a small school has its advantages, but that is not the reason for the 100 percent completion of the TELL survey,” McCane said. “Our faculty members are part of a team responsible for creating a positive, supportive and encouraging school climate. That, you can build in any size school.
“It was rewarding to see hard data confirming our faculty recognizes that our school is data-driven, utilizes their expertise as educational leaders and holds high professional standards for effective instruction,” McCane added.
As in many schools and districts across the state, Augusta Independent administrators are being proactive with the results of the survey.
“We will study the results to make sure there are no previously unidentified negative trends,” said Superintendent John Cordle.
McCane added that Augusta High’s school leadership has shared results with the faculty and will analyze the results again before revising its school and district improvement plans.
The TELL Kentucky survey results can be used in a variety of ways as the school year begins, said Troy Teegarden, a program consultant in the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Branch of Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Next-Generation Schools and Districts.
“KDE and our coalition partners have developed user guides for several key groups, including district leaders, school leaders, school-based decision making councils and local school board leaders,” Teegarden said. “A parent guide and other materials also are in development.”
These materials are available for downloading from the TELL Kentucky website.
KDE has been working with the TELL results since they were released in April. The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) reviewed statewide results at its June meeting. During its August meeting, KBE reviewed specific recommendations.
Also, the New Teacher Center is working with KDE, Teegarden said, to provide a brief summary of the findings, regional (cooperative) summary reports, and reports to large districts. “KDE also is working with the data policy team to establish a clear and concise protocol to request additional reports or raw data dissemination,” Teegarden said.
In reviewing the TELL results for Augusta Independent, McCane said she was proud that her district did not fall below the state average except on a few survey items.
“However, there was a recurring theme in the area of professional development and teachers having more input in the planning process, differentiating for individual teacher needs and providing training on closing achievement gaps,” McCane said.
One of the survey questions related to teachers working in professional learning communities to develop and align instructional practices. For Augusta Independent, 79 percent agreed that the district does a good job in that area while the statewide approval rate on that question was 84 percent.
McCane said district leaders “will continue conducting monthly professional learning communities focusing our work on the new standards, assessment literacy and the Characteristics of Highly Effective Teaching and Learning,” to raise the percentage of teachers who are pleased with opportunities to participate, she said.
Cordle said he was most surprised the new teachers in the Augusta Independent district fell below the state average of 85 percent when asked if they were formally assigned a mentor.
“All first-year teachers have mentors; plus, with our size, the school administrative team is able to devote considerable time to our younger teachers,” Cordle said. “In addition, we have a new teacher training program so the answers provided to the questions have given us an area to reexamine.”
One of Kentucky teachers’ biggest concerns, according to the survey, is instructional time. This registered as less of a concern among educators in the Augusta Independent district.
“Many things are beyond our control in schools, such as budget cuts, socioeconomic status of students and number of instructional days,” McCane said. “However, as the principal, I can maximize instruction and minimize interruption by protecting instructional blocks, planning and collaboration. We limit phone calls to classrooms, paperwork, supervisory duties and meetings for our faculty to optimize teaching and learning opportunities.”
Teegarden says KDE has some recommendations for following up on the survey.
- DON’T regard the survey as an attempt to merely document the physical structure and related resources in a school building. While physical facilities and resources are included in the research base, other complex factors influencing the professional teaching practices of educators also are measured.
- DO use the findings to inform school- and district-level decisions about scheduling, professional development offerings, opportunities to support and cultivate teacher leadership, collaboration and investments in facilities and resources. By making TELL Kentucky data part of the school improvement planning process, findings from each working condition domain can be seamlessly integrated in the current and emerging school improvement programs at every school in Kentucky.
- DON’T consider this process as an accountability tool for principal performance. The “leadership” category of the TELL Kentucky survey is intentionally broad to incorporate multiple sources of school leadership, including teacher leadership. Teaching, empowering, leading and learning conditions are about schools, not individuals, and it will take the entire school community to improve them.
- DO consider where administrator perceptions differ considerably from teachers. Recognize where the divergent views, particularly of teachers and administrators, could limit the potential for meaningful improvement. Utilize the data as an artifact upon which to base decisions for improvement planning purposes.
- DON’T use the results as a one-shot conversation or a report that sits on the shelf. The data are only as useful as their potential application for improving schools.
- DO use the findings to help districts move from understanding teaching conditions to taking action toward instructional improvement. Teams of community members, teachers, principals, administrators and policymakers should consider using the data as one point of reference in planning for and implementing change in their schools.
- DON’T use the information within the vacuum of a single school, with fear of comparisons to other schools. The results will prove more meaningful if used to support collaborative efforts to identify and implement best practices within and among Kentucky schools.
- DO view the results relative to other groups of schools across a district and the state. The findings are reported with bars representing the school, district and state averages for TELL Kentucky questions and constructs.
- DON’T over- or under-represent the data in local policy decision-making. Local policymakers should neither ignore the power of teaching conditions data, nor make policy without the context of other data points about the school and/or district.
- DO use TELL Kentucky to help drive local-level policy decisions. Reviewing data results with local teacher associations, school leadership, local school boards, legislators and other decision-makers can ensure that policies and resources are more responsive to the most pressing needs of students, educators, schools and districts.