Education stakeholders split on educator-only public school survey

Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Agency of Education are joining the Vermont-NEA in sponsoring an anonymous online survey that culls feedback from teachers and administrators on public school conditions across the state.

The TELL Vermont survey, released yesterday, is administered by the New Teacher Center, an organization that conducts surveys nationwide. It is open to all licensed school-based educators, including teachers, administrators and counselors. TELL is an acronym for Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning.

When the same survey was conducted for the first time in 2009, the Vermont-NEA was its lone promoter. Vermont-NEA spokesperson Darren Allen said the union sought other education stakeholders to sponsor the survey, but state education officials and the three associations representing superintendents, principals and school boards all declined.

Brian Townsend, Armando Vilaseca and Peter Shumlin

Left to right, Brian Townsend, IT manager for the Vermont Department of Education, Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca and Gov. Peter Shumlin at a press conference in January. Photo by Andrew Nemethy.

This year, the governor and the Agency of Education are backing the survey.

“If you want to make Vermont’s schools the nation’s best, you need to know what the men and women in our classrooms think works and what needs improvement,” said Shumlin in a statement. “… This survey will give us valuable insights as we continue to shape our schools for the 21st century.”

Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca released a similar statement. “I encourage all teachers and principals to participate in the TELL Vermont survey as it will provide valuable information, helping us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our systems.”

But the survey still doesn’t have the blessing of the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA), the Vermont Superintendents Association (VSA), and the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA). The three associations are concerned that the survey results, which rely primarily on teachers’ perceptions, will give an incomplete picture of school conditions in Vermont.

In a letter to VPA members, Ken Page, the executive director, explained the association’s stance: “Our Executive Council in general saw this survey as providing only a partial, and at times, a negative picture about the teaching and learning conditions from the adults who work in Vermont Schools.”

Page quoted one council member who said, “When your local union reps stands in front of the staff and asks you to fill out a survey, the inclination for people is to feel obligated to find something to crab about.”

Steve Dale, executive director of the VSBA, said, “When the data from the survey becomes available, we certainly expect we will be looking at it and using it, but our preference would be for a more fully balanced data set.”

The VSBA would like to hear from students, parents and community members in addition to teachers and administrators, Dale explained.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the VSA, said his association has limited resources and the VSA board decided not to invest money in a survey they felt wouldn’t provide a balanced look at school conditions. “It’s really just a single data point in an arena where we need a lot of data points.”

According to Allen, “Vermont is somewhat unique — in almost every other state all stakeholders are involved. We are an outlier in that respect. We actively sought the participation of the school boards, principals and superintendents associations, and all three declined. However individual school boards, school board members, individual principals and superintendents have expressed their strong support for the survey.”

The results will be privy to school administrators, educators and state officials. Schools, however, can review their individual results only if their survey response rate reaches 50 percent. The New Teacher Center compiles and analyzes the data.

Allen said the key finding from the 2009 survey was a correlation between the working conditions reported by educators and the student achievement levels at that school.

“What we found, in general, was that in schools where educators believe teaching and working conditions were good, student achievement levels were higher. It may sound obvious but it really is an important link,” Allen said.

But Francis said there were reports that the survey drummed up tension between administrators and teachers. “There were people who felt it [the survey] wasn’t used entirely constructively particularly in regards to the relationship of the principal to the teachers.”

“Perceptional data is great, but it isn’t enough. You can’t make sweeping generalizations from it. I think it’s a great tool to add up things that are not working and then blame people for it,” Page said.

In a released statement, Martha Allen, Vermont-NEA’s president, said, “It just makes sense that everyone involved in educating our children would want to explore how we can replicate what works, change what doesn’t and make our schools an even more important resource.”

Correction: Armando Vilaseca is Secretary, not Commissioner, of Education.

Alicia Freese

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  • Julie Hansen

    How stunning that the survey would ignore input from principals and parents.

  • Patrick Cashman

    In a released statement, Martha Allen, Vermont-NEA’s president, said, “It just makes sense that everyone involved in educating our children would want to explore how we can replicate what works…”

    It appears that in the Vermont-NEA’s view the “everyone involved” doesn’t include parents, principals, school boards, etc. It’s also a bit funny that Ms. Allen would use “our children” implying a group relationship to those children yet exclude that portion of the group; the parents, that have an actual relationship with those children. Unless she meant the Vermont-NEA became pregnant and had children…but I think I would have heard about something like that on the news.

  • Mary McFaun

    The support staff that deal with children in reg.ed and SPED are also included.Vermont was the first state to look for their voices.
    If you want to know how the people working in the school feel things are going and if there there a relationship between what they see and how kids do, you ask them, not the people at the top of the organization.
    In industry when you want to know how to improve a process, you ask the people who are doing it, not theowner,the manager or the forman-you ask the person who actually does the work.

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