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Social Side of Education Reform Blog Series

  • The Intervention That Works Across Settings With All Children

    Written on June 29, 2016

    Our guest authors today are Geoff Marietta, Executive Director, Pine Mountain Settlement School and Research Fellow at Berea College; Chad d'Entremont, Executive Director, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy; and Emily E. Murphy, Director, Massachusetts Education Partnership (MEP) at the Rennie Center. Their work focuses on research and practice in labor-management-community collaboration.

    If you learned there was an intervention to improve student outcomes that worked for nearly all children across communities, what would stop you from using it? This intervention has closed learning gaps, both in urban communities serving predominantly low-income minority students and in isolated rural areas with large numbers of white and Native American students living in poverty. It has worked in suburban, urban, and rural settings with white, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and multi-racial students. That intervention is collaboration.

    In this post, we define collaboration, briefly discuss the growing evidence associating collaboration with student success, and describe some of our ongoing work, which focuses on designing tools to facilitate, formalize, and focus the hard but worthwhile and necessary responsibility of working together.

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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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  • The Hidden Power Of Our Social Worlds

    Written on April 6, 2016

    In July 2014 the Albert Shanker Institute began a blog series on the “social side” of education reform. The collection, which includes contributions from established and emerging scholars, attempts to shine a light on new research arguing for the centrality of the social dimension in educational improvement. This blog post serves as the preface of a new ASI publication featuring six of the most important blog posts from this series. The publication is now available for download here. ASI is holding a research and policy conference on this theme Friday April 8th.

    Whatever level of teacher human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed through formal and informal professional interactions. As teachers join together to solve problems and learn from one another, the school’s instructional capacity becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

    This quote from Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson (p. 20 of this volume) may make perfect sense to you. Our systems and organizations, however, are largely structured around individualistic values. As such, a primary goal is to optimize and reward performance at the individual level. So, while some of us (perhaps many of us) might agree that a team’s capacity can exceed the sum of individual members’ capacity, we generally have a difficult time translating that knowledge into action – e.g., rewarding individual behaviors that enhance team dynamics. Part of the problem is that there’s still a lot to learn about how teamwork and collaboration are properly measured.

    No matter how challenging, understanding the social dynamics that underpin our work organizations seems particularly timely given the interdependent nature of the modern workplace. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the past two decades. At many companies, the article notes, “more than three quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.”

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  • Collaboration Is The Way We Work, Not An "Activity"

    Written on March 29, 2016

    Our guest author today is Joseph Vincente, 10th Grade Chemistry Science Team Leader at the East Side Community High School in New York City. East Side is one of a growing network of 38 NY public high schools (mostly in NYC) with waivers that replace standardized state tests with performance based assessment. Vincente is interested in educational technology, sustainability education, and empowering young women and students of color to pursue STEM careers.

    So, 300 homework assignments checked, 200 email replied to, 100 quizzes graded, 50 more lab reports left from Monday still to read, 30 lessons executed, 10 revised notebook entries re-graded, 5 phone calls home and texts made to check-in with parents, 4 curriculum maps revised, 3 extra help sessions held before school, during lunch, and after school, 2 college bound pep-talks made, and 1 mediation between quarreling best friends conducted.

    Phew. 

    I take a deep breath and do a bit of mindless silent cleaning and organizing in my classroom to decompress. Another exhausting week in the life of a high school teacher comes to a close. Must be time for the weekend, right?  Well, almost... Friday afternoon at my school is when we do some of our most demanding but essential work as teachers.  You may be thinking it’s time for the dreaded weekly PD meetings or for some “collaboration”. Yes, that’s right; but, at East Side collaboration isn’t just an activity or behaving in a friendly, respectful, or cooperative way toward colleagues. Rather, collaboration underpins how we structure and conduct most of our work, how we serve students, and how we learn and grow as professionals. In the next few paragraphs, I describe some of East Side’s collaborative structures as well as the norms and conditions that support them.

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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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  • Teachers And Professional Collaboration: How Sweden Has Become The ABBA Of Educational Change

    Written on March 2, 2016

    Our guest author today is Andy Hargreaves, the Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College. He is the coauthor of Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, which won the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for the idea in education most likely to have the most effect on practice worldwide. He is also the 2016 recipient of the Horace Mann League’s Outstanding Friend of Public Education Award. An extended version of this column originally appeared in Pedagogiska Magasinet, the Swedish teachers’ magazine in February 2016.

    In the 1960s and 70s, Sweden’s economic productivity and social engineering were the envy of democrats all over the world. The nation’s comprehensive schools were an inspiration for public education reformers in the United Kingdom and many other nations too. In Sweden, market prosperity and the collective good went side by side. It was a country where, like the nations’ classic pop group, Abba, people banded and bonded together really well.

    In the 90s, however, Sweden entered an age of what political scientists call free-market neo-liberalism, and educational reform was at the leading edge of it. In some ways moving ahead of the US trend, Sweden introduced large numbers of competitive “free schools”, funded with public money but no longer regulated by their school districts. Hedge fund companies were the largest single group of owners of these schools. Sweden’s society and its schools were, in the titles of two of Abba’s songs, now driven by a “Winner Takes it All” culture of “Money, Money, Money!” Between 2003 and 2012, Sweden experienced the greatest deterioration in PISA scores out of all OECD countries who were performing above average in 2003. Despite the country's proud and internationally admired egalitarian tradition, its achievement gaps have been widening faster than in any other country.

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  • Beyond Teacher Quality

    Written on February 23, 2016

    Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems is a recent report from the Learning First Alliance and the International Center for Benchmarking in Education at the National Center for Education and the Economy. The paper describes practices and policies from four high-performing school systems – British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore – where professional learning is believed to be the primary vehicle for school improvement.

    My first reaction was: This sounds great, but where is the ubiquitous discussion of “teacher quality?” Frankly, I was somewhat baffled that a report on school improvement never even mentioned the phrase.* Upon close reading, I found the report to be full of radical (and very good) ideas. It’s not that the report proposed anything that would require an overhaul of the U.S. education system; rather, they were groundbreaking because these ideas did not rely on the typical assumptions about how the youth or the adults in these systems learn and achieve mastery. Because, while things are changing a bit in the U.S. with regard to our understanding of student learning – e.g., we now talk about “deep learning” – we have still not made this transition when it comes to teachers.

    In the U.S., a number of unstated but common assumptions about “teacher quality” suffuse the entire school improvement conversation. As researchers have noted (see here and here), instructional effectiveness is implicitly viewed as an attribute of individuals, a quality that exists in a sort of vacuum (or independent of the context of teachers’ work), and which, as a result, teachers can carry with them, across and between schools. Effectiveness also is often perceived as fairly stable: teachers learn their craft within the first few years in the classroom and then plateau,** but, at the end of the day, some teachers have what it takes and others just don’t. So, the general assumption is that a “good teacher” will be effective under any conditions, and the quality of a given school is determined by how many individual “good teachers” it has acquired.

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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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  • Will Value-Added Reinforce The Walls Of The Egg-Crate School?

    Written on June 25, 2015

    Our guest author today is Susan Moore Johnson, Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Johnson directs the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, which examines how best to recruit, develop, and retain a strong teaching force.

    Academic scholars are often dismayed when policymakers pass laws that disregard or misinterpret their research findings. The use of value-added methods (VAMS) in education policy is a case in point.

    About a decade ago, researchers reported that teachers are the most important school-level factor in students’ learning, and that that their effectiveness varies widely within schools (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, & Hamilton 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain 2005; Rockoff 2004). Many policymakers interpreted these findings to mean that teacher quality rests with the individual rather than the school and that, because some teachers are more effective than others, schools should concentrate on increasing their number of effective teachers.

    Based on these assumptions, proponents of VAMS began to argue that schools could be improved substantially if they would only dismiss teachers with low VAMS ratings and replace them with teachers who have average or higher ratings (Hanushek 2009). Although panels of scholars warned against using VAMS to make high-stakes decisions because of their statistical limitations (American Statistical Association, 2014; National Research Council & National Academy of Education, 2010), policymakers in many states and districts moved quickly to do just that, requiring that VAMS scores be used as a substantial component in teacher evaluation.

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