When a group of Knox County teachers first started speaking out and complaining about a number of education-reform measures last fall, some people were quick to dismiss them as a minority.
"The data shows that teachers in Tennessee are more satisfied with their working environment than they have been," Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters at an event at Bearden Elementary in early November.
But that data—the TELL, or Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey conducted statewide last spring—didn't have any specific questions about morale, nor did it ask how satisfied teachers were with the district they worked in. And although about 80 percent of teachers across the state participated, only 44 percent of teachers in Knox County Schools did.
So at the beginning of December, KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre announced he would be conducting a district-wide anonymous survey to gather teacher input about a number of issues. The paper questionnaires were filled in before the holidays, and on Monday, McIntyre presented the results to the Board. They aren't pretty.
"Of particular concern to me is the perspective that I think some of our teachers expressed around the limited level of autonomy that they feel instructionally in our classrooms, and I think that's an area we need to dig into a bit more," McIntyre said during Monday's work session.
"Some of our teachers" is a bit of an understatement. Of those surveyed, 69 percent say they didn't feel teachers were trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction. The same percentage didn't feel they were recognized as educational experts. And 70 percent of teachers say they didn't have autonomy to make decisions about instructional delivery.
"It's really disturbing," says KCS Board member Indya Kincannon. "We need teachers to have autonomy and have the ability to exercise their own discretion in the classroom."
The results of the survey stand in sharp contrast with the TELL results. A press release from the governor's office last April boasted, "Nearly 90 percent of Tennessee's teachers believe they are trusted to make professional decisions about instruction and are given autonomy." (The actual number, according to the TELL website, was closer to 83 percent.)
Most KCS teachers—3,494 out of 3,927, or about 89 percent—filled out the surveys, so the numbers are indicative.
"I do think that the survey results show that it's not just a small pocket of teachers who are discontented," says Amber Rountree, a librarian at Halls Elementary who recently announced her candidacy for the school board. "I hope that it will actually encourage some kind of positive change and not just act as a platitude. This is a great opportunity for McIntyre and the board to show us they're willing to do something."
The board plans to discuss the survey results in more detail at its mid-month work session on Jan. 21. Kincannon says she hopes her colleagues will take action in both the short and long term.
"To me, [the survey] points to the need to take immediate and strong steps to improve things," Kincannon says.
But autonomy isn't the only concern that shows up on the survey. Contrary to statements McIntyre has made previously, the majority of teachers—74 percent—disagree with having two unannounced evaluations. (State law requires one unannounced annual evaluation, but KCS does both evaluations without notice). And half of the teachers surveyed think that KCS should evaluate the highest ranked teachers (those who score a ‘5' on their prior year's evaluation) only once a year, another option under state law that KCS has not implemented.
In addition, only 35 percent of teachers feel that their PLCs—Professional Learning Communities, a required weekly collaborative planning meeting—enhance their instructional practice. Over 68 percent say they don't think student evaluations of their performance is valuable data.
Results on Common Core are mixed—37 percent think it won't benefit student learning, 27 percent are neutral, and 36 percent think it will help. But over 64 percent of teachers are opposed to participating in optional writing assessments proposed for this spring, and almost 49 percent don't want optional PARCC field testing for 10 percent of students.
Even more concerning, while 78 percent of teachers say their school is overall a good place to work and learn, only 28 percent say the district itself is. And 61 percent say they don't feel they have opportunities to provide input regarding the district's strategic direction.
"We will continue to analyze the results of the survey," says KCS spokesperson Melissa Ogden.
Rountree notes that multiple survey questions asked teachers' feelings about their "school/district," and she thinks the results would have been even more telling—and possibly negative—if the two camps were separated throughout.
"I love my school. I think most teachers feel this way," Rountree says. "There are specific issues that aren't with my school, though, and it seems the survey was maybe formatted in a way to collect a more positive response."
Rountree says she hopes the board and the administration take action quickly on the things that can be implemented this semester, including announced evaluations and no additional testing.
Yet one somewhat surprising survey result is likely to spur serious debate for the next several months, if not longer—less than 30 percent of teachers disagree with a transition to a "balanced calendar" for all schools. That would shorten the summer break to six or eight weeks and create two- or three-week breaks in the fall, winter, and spring.
"It's interesting that there's almost a consensus for a balanced calendar," Kincannon says. "I think that's something we'll definitely be discussing."