Common Measures: What Teachers Feel About Essential Schools

These responses were gathered from 1,762 teachers in 46 Essential schools, by Kyle Peck, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. The survey was commissioned by the Coalition as a pilot study only–intended not to be conclusive but to explore what questions might be usefully asked in a continuing survey to be launched by the Coalition’s Taking Stock effort this year.

Seventy-one schools were asked to survey all teaching faculty, regardless of the level of Essential School (ES) involvement. Even among the 46 schools that complied, many teachers within the schools did not complete the survey. The level of ES participation by the schools that did return the survey varied from 24 percent to 97 percent.

Teachers reported where they stood on a five-step scale of involvement in the Essential School effort within their buildings; for the purposes of simplicity we will refer here to teachers who called themselves highly involved as HI, and those who said they had lower involvement as LI.

What follows is a distillation of one section of the survey report, which reports on only the statistically significant responses by teachers. They fall roughly into four categories, as follows:

Structural Differences

  • Though by no means all HI teachers are involved with a cooperative planning team, there’s a strong correlation. But even highly involved ES teachers don’t have more than an hour a day to plan with the team. Most spend this time with their team, discussing curriculum and related matters, individual students, and team management issues. (Social conversations hold steady across groups.)
  • An increasing level of ES involvement does seem to reduce the number of students for whom teachers are responsible, but less than a third of HI teachers have fewer than 80 students. Many ES-involved teachers still are responsible for more than 175 students over a year’s time.
  • At higher levels of ES involvement, it appears, teachers have four or fewer class periods on an average day. At lower levels of involvement, five or six periods a day is more common.
  • The greater their ES involvement, the more likely that teachers will have 90 -minute blocks of class time. But over half the significantly involved teachers and a quarter of totally involved still don’t have access to ANY 90-minute blocks. Still, many even low-involvement teachers say they have 90-minute blocks with students four to five times per week. HI teachers are not only more likely to have access to 90-minute blocks, they are also more likely to use them.
  • Fully half the totally involved ES teachers are in English and social studies. Elective teachers are unlikely to be totally involved, and special education teachers are not likely to be involved.

Teachers’ and Students’ Activities

  • Higher levels of ES involvement are related to increased use of exhibitions, demonstrations, and other non-traditional evaluation methods. But fewer than half of the ES-involved teachers use these methods, and for less than 40 percent of their grading method.
  • When the level of ES involvement moves beyond moderate to significant and total, the teacher’s workload increases substantially.
  • ES schools may spend less formal meeting time on administrative matters, and high ES involvement is related to more formal meeting time spent on curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment issues and to discussing student behavior (though teachers’ general conversation and griping level remains the same). Informal conversation about curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment issues also goes up with ES involvement, but not conversation about student behavior. Informal conversations show less general conversation and griping in ES teachers, and less time talking about non-school matters.
  • In class, HI teachers spend less time on administrative matters, less time delivering instructions to students, less time lecturing (though only 6.6 percent of all respondents claim to lecture more than half the time), more time coaching, slightly more time leading class discussions, and more time participating in discussions in a role other than leader.
  • More ES involved teachers have responsibility for an advisory group, and the group tends to be smaller (around 16 – 20) than those of non-ES teachers. But still, almost half of totally involved ES teachers don’t have advisory groups at all. HI teachers are more likely to have their advisees in class as students.
  • ES involvement doesn’t seem to make a difference with student tardiness, which 65 percent of those surveyed said was a problem; but teachers perceive absenteeism as less of a problem when ES involvement goes up. ES-involved teachers also appear to perceive student behavior as a problem less often.


  • As ES involvement increases, so does teachers’ strength of enjoyment of teaching, and they are more likely to recommend teaching as a career. But most teachers in these schools, even LI ones, do like teaching.
  • More ES-involved teachers seem to know and strongly indicate respect for the other teachers in their school, to strongly agree that their personal relationships with most students are meaningful, to feel that staff “really cares” about the students, and to be satisfied with their jobs. There’s not much difference between the groups as to whether teachers feel liked and respected by other teachers in the school. But high-level ES involvement does go along with stronger support for and respect for the building administrator.
  • More HI teachers than LI teachers seem to feel that school prepares students for the future, though the numbers aren’t striking. They are more likely to believe students are being better prepared to work independently, that teachers believe all students can succeed, that parents are well-informed of their children’s progress (though the level of parent awareness, they feel, is still quite low), that students learn a great deal in class. High-level involvement seems to be associated with a strong belief that students are learning to work well with other people and that school is helping them learn to use their minds well.
  • Though around 90 percent of teachers overall reported liking and respecting their students and having high expectations for them, HI teachers like their students more strongly, respect them more, and agree more strongly that they have high expectations for them. And they believe more strongly that their students like and respect them (although more than 80 percent of teachers overall believed this). HI teachers more strongly agree that students respond well to their teaching methods, while LI teachers are more likely to agree and to be neutral on this.


  • Age, gender, and years of experience in education do not appear to be significantly related to participation in ES activities. But those with more education appear to take part more. Only a few of even the most involved claim to use all the nine Common Principles; 45 percent use “some” but not “most.”