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Survey: Supportive leadership helps retain top teachers

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A national survey of more than 40,000 public school teachers suggests that while higher salaries are far more likely than performance pay to help keep top talent in the classroom, supportive leadership trumps financial incentives.

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The survey, funded by a philanthropy active in education reform, also shows that teachers have mixed feelings about proposals for new academic standards: Slightly more than half think that establishing common standards across all states would have a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, but two-thirds believe the rigor of standards in their own state is "about right."

The survey, to be released Wednesday, was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the publisher Scholastic Inc. Harris Interactive canvassed the teachers via telephone and online questionnaires from March 2009 to June 2009, as the Obama administration was developing strategies to promote higher standards and more sophisticated use of test data to improve achievement and reward effective teachers.

The Gates-funded survey, capturing a sample of the estimated 3.3 million public school teachers nationwide, shed some light on teacher opinion at a moment of ferment in public education. It also reflected, in part, the reform goals of the foundation itself.

"No doubt we wanted to put some of the big agenda items out there that are under discussion, some of which we care deeply about," said Vicki L. Phillips, a foundation official who oversees grants in elementary and secondary education. Among the foundation's priorities, she said, are common standards, stronger data systems and compensation linked to performance. Last year the foundation announced it is investing $290 million on experiments in tenure, evaluation, compensation, training and mentoring -- all meant to promote effective teaching in Pittsburgh, Memphis, Los Angeles and Tampa. Teachers' unions have collaborated with local administrators and the foundation on the initiative.

Critics have said the foundation is driving a misguided, business-oriented agenda in public schools.

Among the survey's findings:

To retain good teachers, 68 percent called supportive leadership "absolutely essential," 45 percent said the same of higher salaries and 8 percent listed performance pay. Many of those surveyed also described "relevant" professional development as essential, along with "clean and safe" working conditions, time for teachers to collaborate and access to high-quality curriculum. In addition, 71 percent said monetary rewards for teacher performance would have moderate or no impact on student achievement.

Fifty-nine percent said establishing common standards across states would have a strong or very strong impact on achievement, and 73 percent said clearer academic standards would produce such benefits. But 69 percent said the rigor of their own state's standards was "about right," and teachers were nearly evenly split on whether their own state has "too many standards" or "the right amount."

Just over half of those responding called state and district tests somewhat important for measuring academic achievement, and more than one-quarter called them very important or essential.

The survey's margin of error was described as less than 1 percentage point. Melinda Gates is a member of The Washington Post Co. board of directors.

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