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  • Promoting Productive Collaboration Through Inquiry: The Limits Of Policy Mandates

    Written on December 5, 2017

    Our guest author today is Robert Shand, the Novice G. Fawcett Postdoctoral Researcher in Educational Studies at The Ohio State University. His research focuses on the economics of education, teacher collaboration and professional development, and how teachers and school leaders make decisions based on data and research to improve student outcomes.

    In some ways, it is hard to dispute the traditional view that K-12 teaching is a professionally solitary activity. At the end of the day, most instruction still occurs with a single teacher standing in front of a classroom. When I tell folks that I study teacher collaboration for a living, some are puzzled – other than team teaching, what would teachers even collaborate about? Some former colleagues from my time as a middle and high school teacher even bristle at the growing demands by administrators that they collaborate. These former colleagues no doubt envision pointless meetings, contrived team-based scenarios, and freeloading colleagues trying to offload their work onto others.

    Despite these negative preconceptions, there is growing evidence that meaningful work with colleagues can enhance teacher productivity, effectiveness, and professional growth, and even increase job satisfaction. Teachers can share ideas and instructional strategies, divide the work of developing curriculum, learn from colleagues, and analyze data and evidence to solve instructional problems and help meet diverse student needs. The evidence for the potential benefits of collaboration is so compelling, and collaborative work in education is becoming so pervasive, that the Every Student Succeeds Act legally redefines professional development to include “collaborative” as part of the definition.

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  • Building A Professional Network Of Rural Educators From Scratch

    Written on October 5, 2016

    Our guest author today is Danette Parsley, Chief Program Officer at Education Northwest, where she leads initiatives like the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network. To learn more about this work, check out Designing Rural School Improvement Networks: Aspirations and Actualities and Generating Opportunity and Prosperity: The Promise of Rural Education Collaboratives.

    Small rural schools draw from a deep well of assets to positively impact student experiences and outcomes. They tend to serve as central hubs within their communities, and their small size often facilitates close staff relationships, which in turn can enable moving innovative ideas into action. At the same time, rural schools face a number of challenges that differ from those of their urban and suburban counterparts.

    First, it’s extremely difficult to draw high-quality teachers to geographically disconnected, rural communities—and, when they do come, it’s hard to get them to stay. Second, it’s a challenge to connect teachers across remote and rural communities so they can share instructional practices and professional development. One way to address the challenges facing rural schools, while leveraging their inherent assets, is to establish professional networks of teacher leaders aimed at providing support that helps their colleagues succeed and encourages them to stay.

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  • Getting Serious About Measuring Collaborative Teacher Practice

    Written on April 8, 2016

    Our guest author today is Nathan D. Jones, an assistant professor of special education at Boston University. His research focuses on teacher quality, teacher development, and school improvement. Dr. Jones previously worked as a middle school special education teacher in the Mississippi Delta. In this column, he introduces a new Albert Shanker Institute publication, which was written with colleagues Elizabeth Bettini and Mary Brownell.

    The current policy landscape presents a dilemma. Teacher evaluation has dominated recent state and local reform efforts, resulting in broad changes in teacher evaluation systems nationwide. The reforms have spawned countless research studies on whether emerging evaluation systems use measures that are reliable and valid, whether they result in changes in how teachers are rated, what happens to teachers who receive particularly high or low ratings, and whether the net results of these changes have had an effect on student learning.

    At the same time,  there has been increasing enthusiasm about the promise of teacher collaboration (see here and here), spurred in part by new empirical evidence linking teacher collaboration to student outcomes (see Goddard et al., 2007; Ronfeldt, 2015; Sun, Grissom, & Loeb, 2016). When teachers work together, such as when they jointly analyze student achievement data (Gallimore et al., 2009; Saunders, Gollenberg, & Gallimore, 2009) or when high-performing teachers are matched with low-performing peers (Papay, Taylor, Tyler, & Laski, 2016), students have shown substantially better growth on standardized tests.

    This new work adds to a long line of descriptive research on the importance of colleagues and other social aspects of the school organization.  Research has documented that informal relationships with colleagues play an important role in promoting positive teacher outcomes, such as planned and actual retention decisions (e.g., Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Pogodzisnki, Youngs, & Frank, 2013; Youngs, Pogodzinski, Grogan, & Perrone, 2015). Further, a number of initiatives aimed at improving teacher learning – e.g., professional learning communities (Giles & Hargreaves, 2006) and lesson study (Lewis, Perry, & Murrata, 2006) – rely on teachers planning instruction collaboratively.

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  • Improving Teaching Through Collaboration

    Written on March 8, 2016

    Our guest author today is Matthew Ronfeldt, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. Ronfeldt seeks to understand how to improve teaching quality, particularly in schools and districts that serve historically marginalized student populations. His research sits at the intersection of educational practice and policy and focuses on teacher preparation, teacher retention, teacher induction, and the assessment of teachers and preparation programs.

    Learning to teach is an ongoing process. To be successful, then, schools must promote not only student learning but also teacher learning across their careers.* Embracing this notion, policymakers have called for the creation of school-based professional learning communities, including organizational structures that promote regular opportunities for teachers to collaborate with teams of colleagues** – also here and here. As the use of instructional teams becomes increasingly common, it is important to examine whether and how collaboration actually improves teaching and learning. The growing evidence, summarized below, suggests that it does. 

    For many decades, educational scholars have conducted qualitative case studies documenting the nature of collaboration among particular groups of teachers working together in departmental teams, reading groups, and other types of instructional teams. This body of work has demonstrated that the kinds and content of collaboration vary substantially across contexts, has shed light on the norms and structures that promote more promising collaboration, and has set the stage for today’s policy focus on “professional learning communities.” However, these studies rarely connected collaboration to teachers’ classroom performance. Thus, they provided little information on whether teachers actually got better at teaching as a result of their participation in collaboration.

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  • What Makes Teacher Collaboration Work?

    Written on December 8, 2015

    Today’s guest authors are David Sherer and Johanna Barmore. Sherer is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He specializes in research on policy implementation and the social dynamics of K-12 school reform. Barmore is a former teacher and also a current doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies how policy impacts teachers' instructional practice as well as how teachers learn to improve instruction, with a focus on teacher education.

    You’ve probably attended meetings that were a waste of your time. Perhaps there was no agenda. Perhaps the facilitator of the meeting dominated the conversation. Perhaps people arrived late or the wrong people were in the room in the first place. Maybe the team ran in place and no one had any good ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s common for teamwork to feel ineffective. Good teamwork does not just “happen.” Organizational researchers study teams with a goal of understanding the conditions that foster effective meetings and, more broadly, effective collaboration (see here for a review).

    Meetings can feel like a waste of time in schools, just like they can in other workplaces. However, educational scholars have paid less attention, compared to researchers in other fields, to the conditions that foster productive collaborative work, such as management (see, e.g. Cohen & Bailey, 1997). Educational researchers and practitioners have long advocated that collaboration between teachers should be a cornerstone of efforts to improve instruction – indeed, teachers themselves often cite collaboration with colleagues as one of the key ways they learn. And yet, we know many teams flounder instead of flourish. So why are some teams more productive than others?

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  • The Story Behind The Story: Social Capital And The Vista Unified School District

    Written on August 19, 2015

    Our guest author today is Devin Vodicka, superintendent of Vista Unified, a California school district serving over 22,000 students that was recently accepted into the League of Innovative Schools. Dr. Vodicka participates in numerous state and national leadership groups, including the Superintendents Technical Working Group of the U.S. Education Department .

    Transforming a school district is challenging and complex work, often requiring shifts in paradigms, historical perspective, and maintaining or improving performance. Here, I’d like to share how we approached change at Vista Unified School District (VUSD) and to describe the significant transformation we’ve been undergoing, driven by data, focused on relationships, and based in deep partnerships. Although Vista has been hard at work over many years, this particular chapter starts in July of 2012 when I was hired.  

    When I became superintendent, the district was facing numerous challenges: Declining enrollment, financial difficulties, strained labor relations, significant turnover in the management ranks, and unresolved lawsuits were all areas in need of attention. The school board charged me and my team with transforming the district, which serves large numbers of linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse students. While there is still significant room for improvement, much has changed in the past three years, generally trending in a positive direction. Below is the story of how we did it.

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  • Starting Closest To Home: The Importance Of Developing Teachers’ Understanding Of The Social Contexts Of Their Classrooms

    Written on June 11, 2015

    Our guest author today is John Lane, a former teacher and instructional coach who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Michigan State University on a project that investigates the impact of social networks and mentorship on the mathematics instructional practices of beginning teachers. 

    It may seem foolish now, but there was a time in this country when policymakers believed that reforms were self-executing. Legislatures and educational bureaucrats would articulate the terms of the policies and their vision for improving schools, and teachers and others close to schools would translate these visions into practice. In the meantime, over the past fifty years or so, researchers have been able to better understand the vast gulf between reformers’ ideals and teachers’ practice. In short, we have come to understand that improving teacher’s practice is more difficult than anyone imagined.

    Policymakers, however, seem not to have gotten this message, or to have gotten it only partially. For the most part, they still follow a familiar script that reads that teachers either lack the skill or the will to enact reforms, or both. Consequently, reforms typically ratchet up accountability while also including some provision for teacher learning.

    In what follows, I focus on the content of this learning and what it might take to achieve it. First, I discuss why teacher learning is complex and often challenging. Next, I discuss how teacher learning is typically organized, and the substance of what teachers currently learn. Specifically, I contend that in teachers’ typical learning opportunities, reforms are reduced to a set of strategies that “work” across settings, and in which the contexts of teaching become an unwanted entanglement. In this post, I argue that teachers would benefit from opportunities to learn about the social dynamics of classrooms -- it is those dynamics, after all, that affect their own reform efforts and teacher practice more broadly. I then offer some ideas about how teachers might be able to accomplish this.

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  • Trust: The Foundation Of Student Achievement

    Written on May 21, 2015

    When sharing with me the results of some tests, my doctor once said, "You are a scientist, you know a single piece of data can't provide all the answers or suffice to make a diagnosis. We can't look at a single number in isolation, we need to look at all results in combination." Was my doctor suggesting that I ignore that piece of information we had? No. Was my doctor deemphasizing the result? No. He simply said that we needed additional evidence to make informed decisions. This is, of course, correct.

    In education, however, it is frequently implied or even stated directly that the bottom line when it comes to school performance is student test scores, whereas any other outcomes, such as cooperation between staff or a supportive learning environment, are ultimately "soft" and, at best, of secondary importance. This test-based, individual-focused position is viewed as serious, rigorous, and data driven. Deviation from it -- e.g., equal emphasis on additional, systemic aspects of schools and the people in them -- is sometimes derided as an evidence-free mindset. Now, granted, few people are “purely” in one camp or the other. Most probably see themselves as pragmatists, and, as such, somewhere in between: Test scores are probably not all that matters, but since the rest seems so difficult to measure, we might as well focus on "hard data" and hope for the best.

    Why this narrow focus on individual measures such as student test scores or teacher quality? I am sure there are many reasons but one is probably lack of familiarity with the growing research showing that we must go beyond the individual teacher and student and examine the social-organizational aspects of schools, which are associated (most likely causally) with student achievement. In other words, all the factors skeptics and pragmatists might think are a distraction and/or a luxury, are actually relevant for the one thing we all care about: Student achievement. Moreover, increasing focus on these factors might actually help us understand what’s really important: Not simply whether testing results went up or down, but why or why not.

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  • Teaching = Thinking + Relationship

    Written on May 5, 2015

    Our guest author today is Bryan Mascio, who taught for over ten years in New Hampshire, primarily working with students who had been unsuccessful in traditional school settings. Bryan is now a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on the cognitive aspects of teaching, and works with schools to support teachers in improving relationships with their students.

    Before I became a teacher I worked as a caretaker for a wide variety of animals. Transitioning from one profession to the other was quite instructive. When I trained dogs, for example, it was straightforward: When the dog sat on command I would give him praise and a treat. After enough training, anyone else could give the command and the dog would perform just as well and as predictably. When I worked with students, on the other hand, it was far more complex – we worked together in a relationship, with give and take as they learned and grew.  Regrettably, when I look at how we train teachers today, it reminds me more of my first profession than my second.

    Teaching is far more than a mechanized set of actions. Our most masterful teachers aren’t just following scripts or using pre-packaged curricula. They are tailoring lessons, making professional judgments, and forging deep bonds with students – all of which is far more difficult to see or understand.  Teaching is a cognitive skill that has human relationships at its center. Unfortunately, we typically don't view teaching this way in the United States. As a result, we usually don't prepare teachers like (or for) this, we don’t evaluate them like this, and we don’t even study them like this. In our public discussion of education, we typically frame teaching as a collection of behaviors, and teachers as though they are simply technicians.  This doesn’t just create a demoralized workforce; it also leaves students in the care of well-meaning and hard-working teachers who are, nonetheless, largely unable to meet their students' individual needs – due either to lack of preparation for, or mandates that prevent, meeting them.

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  • Is The Social Side Of Education Touchy Feely?

    Written on April 16, 2015

    That's right, measuring social and organizational aspects of schools is just... well, "touchy feely." We all intuitively grasp that social relations are important in our work environments, that having mentors on the job can make a world of difference, that knowing how to work with colleagues matters to the quality of the end product, that innovation and improvement relies on the sharing of ideas, that having a good relationship with supervisors influences both engagement and performance, and so on.

    I could go on, but I don't have to; we all just know these things. But is there hard evidence, other than common sense and our personal experiences? Behaviors such as collaboration and interaction or qualities like trust are difficult to quantify. In the end, is it possible that they are just 'soft' and that, even if they’re important (and they are), they just don't belong in policy conversations?

    Wrong.

    In this post, I review three distinct methodological approaches that researchers have used to understand social-organizational aspects of schools. Specifically, I selected studies that examine the relationship between aspects of teachers' social-organizational environments and their students' achievement growth. I focus both on the methods and on the substantive findings. This is because I think some basic sense of how researchers look at complex constructs like trust or collegiality can deepen our understanding of this work and lead us to embrace its implications for policy and practice more fully.

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