School Culture

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

    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.

  • Improving Teaching Through Collaboration

    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.

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

    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.

  • The Narrative Of School Failure And Why We Must Pay Attention To Segregation In Educational Policy

    Our guest authors today are Kara S. Finnigan, Associate Professor at the Warner School of Education of the University of Rochester, and Jennifer Jellison Holme, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  Finnigan and Holme have published several articles and briefs on the issue of school integration including articles in press in Teachers College Record and Educational Law and Policy Review as well as a research brief for the National Coalition on School Diversity. This is the first of a two-part blog series on this topic.

    Imagine that you wake up one morning with a dull pain in your tooth. You take ibuprofen, apply an ice pack, and try to continue as if things are normal.  But as the pain continues to grow over the next few days, you realize that deep down there is a problem – and you are reminded of this every so often when you bite down and feel a shooting pain.  Eventually, you can’t take it any longer and get an x-ray at the dentist’s office, only to find out that what was originally a small problem has spread throughout the whole tooth and you need a root canal.  Now you wish you hadn’t waited so long.

    Why are we talking about a root canal in a blog post about education? As we thought about how to convey the way we see the situation with low-performing schools, this analogy seemed to capture our point. Most of us can relate to what happens when we overlook a problem with our teeth, and yet we don’t pay attention to what can happen when we overlook the underlying problems that affect educational systems.

    In this blog post, we argue that school segregation by race and poverty is one of the underlying causes of school failure, and that it has been largely overlooked in federal and state educational policy in recent decades.

  • What Makes Teacher Collaboration Work?

    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?

  • The Role Of Teacher Diversity In Reducing Implicit Bias

    Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report on the state of teacher diversity, which garnered  fair amount of press attention – see here, here, here, and here. (For a copy of the full report, see here.) This is the first of three posts, drawn from a research review published in the report, which help to explain why diversity in the teaching force—or lack thereof—is a major concern.

    Since the mid-1980s, researchers have argued that the lack of teacher diversity serves to undermine democratic amity by reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating existing social inequalities (see, for example, Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986). A growing body of recent research serves to underscore this point.

    A case in point is research on implicit bias, that is to say, unconscious judgments and opinions that arise through a system of mental processes that are so quick as to be imperceptible. But the fact that they are auto­matic and outside of conscious control can make them very hard to counter and correct for. Being influenced by cultural stereotypes is one of the more common forms of implicit bias. (For previous posts exploring the issue of implicit bias, see here, here and here.)

    Stereotypes are cognitive associations between a group and a trait (or set of traits), such as women and nurtur­ing, men and leadership skills, African American males and aggression, etc. After frequent (and sometimes subtle) exposures from our social environments, these mental associations form automatically, even in the absence of conscious antipathies toward groups (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; Devine, 1989; Bargh, 1999; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004; Greenwald & Krieger, 2006; Jost et al., 2009).

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

    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.

  • New School Climate Tool Facilitates Early Intervention On Social-Emotional Issues: Bullying And Suicide Prevention

    Our guest author today is Dr. Alvin Larson, director of research and evaluation at Meriden Public Schools, a district that serves about 8,900 students in Meriden, CT. Dr. Larson holds a B.A. in Sociology, M. Ed., M.S. in Educational Research and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. The intervention described below was made possible with support from Meriden's community, leadership and education professionals.

    For the most part, students' social-emotional concerns start small; if left untreated, though, they can become severe and difficult to manage. Inappropriate behaviors are not only harmful to the student who exhibits them; they can also serve to increase the social bruising of his/her peers and can be detrimental to the climate of the entire school. The problem is that many of these bruises are not directly observable – or not until they become scars. School psychologists and counselors are familiar with bruised students who act out overtly, but some research suggests that 4.3% of our students carry social-emotional scars of which counselors are unaware (Larson, AERA 2014). To develop a more preventative approach, foster pro-social attitudes and a positive school climate, we need to be able to identify and support the students with hidden bruises as well as intervene with pre-bullies early in their school careers.

    Since 2011, Connecticut’s Local Education Agencies (LEAs) have been required to purchase or develop a student school climate survey. The rationale for this is that anti-social attitudes and a negative school climate are associated with lower academic achievement, current behavior problems, as well as future criminal behaviors (DeLisi et al 2013; Hawkins et al 2000) and suicide ideation (King et al 2001). There are hundreds of anonymous school climate surveys, but none of them was designed to provide the kind of information that we need to help individual students.

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

    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.

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

    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.