by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Matt Underwood
Recently our Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School principals and I attended a half-day workshop with all of the other principals and district staff from the Atlanta Public Schools. The workshop was facilitated by the Gallup organization and was primarily focused on using Gallup’s “Strengths Finder” assessment to identify individuals’ strengths among the district’s leadership and to use them to leverage improvements in schools. At the beginning of the session, there was a presentation of some recent polling research conducted by Gallup that I found interesting, especially as it relates to how we think about what the best ways are to help students achieve success at school.
Earlier this year Gallup released a major report titled The State of America’s Schools which pulled from a surveys of over half a million 5th-12th grade students and of close to 5 million teachers, principals, and district leaders. The report can be downloaded in its entirety here or a quick summary and analysis can be found here. At the APS workshop I attended, Gallup’s executive director of education, Brandon Busteed, cited these findings from their research:
- Students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are almost 30 times as likely to be engaged learners as their peers who strongly disagree with both statements.
- Just 33% of the more than 600,000 students who participated in the 2013 Gallup Student Poll scored highly on all three factors linked to success at school and beyond: hope, engagement, and well-being.
- Less than half of students strongly agree that they get to do what they do best every day, leading to boredom and frustration as their greatest talents go undeveloped.
- Within the first five years on the job, between 40% and 50% of teachers leave the profession. A lack of autonomy needed to effectively use their talents plays a significant role in teacher turnover rates.
- Teachers compare favorably to other U.S. workers in agreeing that they are able to do what they do best every day — but they are last among 12 occupational groups studied when it comes to feeling their opinions count at work.
These are pretty startling statistics. With so much emphasis on improving schools and learning through mechanisms like “accountability systems” for schools and students and “value-added growth measures” in teacher evaluations that don’t seem to recognize the importance of connections between students and teachers, I have to wonder if a by-product of that approach can be found in these numbers. If a school is mainly oriented towards the outcomes of a standardized test at the end of the year, then I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many students would be bored and frustrated and that many teachers would feel disengaged.
If we are truly interested in creating schools where students are hopeful and engaged in their learning and where teachers are motivated to do their best work with and for students, the Gallup report suggests some ways to combat the dire picture painted by the statistics above. Some of their recommendations include “Create a strengths-based strategy for personalizing students’ education plans,” “Recognize the importance of teachers’ ability to connect with students to help them envision their futures,” and “Ask teachers important questions about curriculum, pedagogy, and schedules, and incorporate their feedback into the decision-making process.”
These are all goals we’ve long strived for at ANCS. Last year when we asked students in quarterly surveys whether they were known well by at least one adult in the building, 100% of students said yes. I believe that’s because we put structures in place—advisory, low student-to-teacher ratios, an approach to teaching that starts with where students are at rather than what the next chapter in a textbook is—that cultivate that level of connection. Similarly, teachers and staff are the drivers of curricular choices, daily schedules, and key decisions to be made at the school. Their input isn’t just nice to have—it’s necessary to our ultimate success as a school.
Matt Underwood is in his eighth year at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. After serving as the Principal for the school’s middle campus from 2007-2013, he has been in the role of Executive Director since April 2011, working with the school’s leadership team and Governing Board of Directors to carry out the school’s mission and strategic plan.