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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Teachers and Administrators Collaborate

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Those of us in education know that systemic change requires collaboration. And when trying to implement large-scale initiatives like the Common Core State Standards that require rethinking professional learning, curriculum and instructional materials, family engagement activities, assessment and other aspects of the education system, collaboration is particularly important.

But too often the rhetoric of change indicates that it is being done to teachers, not with them -- particularly change driven by politicians who know little about education and are more conscious of the political realities they face than the best interests of students. And as we have learned from education reforms past, that type of change is doomed to fail.

Yet there are places across the country where that is not the case. These are places where teachers and administrators work together both to implement policy decisions in ways that benefit students and to develop innovative solutions to the challenges that their community faces. One such place: California's ABC Unified School District.

Collaboration in ABC

ABC has been widely praised for the collaborative relationship that exists between its teachers and administrators. Not only has the district received a great deal of positive press about this partnership (for example, one blogger recently wrote that he "left ABC rejoicing in what they have been able to accomplish" in this arena), it also served as the basis for research by Rutgers University's Saul Rubinstein and John McCarthy on how working together improves student achievement.

What makes ABC so special is not just the fact that a strong partnership between teachers and administrators exists. It is the fact that the collaboration has been institutionalized. The partnership has thrived for well over a decade, under multiple superintendents and through a number of school board elections. And this has led to a district culture "of shared planning, decision-making, and responsibility" that is "built on respect, commitment, and trust," as a 2011 case study puts it.

Among the many issues that teachers and administrators in ABC have tackled together are curriculum development, textbook selection, recruitment and hiring, mentoring, teacher evaluation and support, and use of data-based decision making to improve student performance. And the partnership is having a positive impact on students.

One early example of collaborative problem solving in the district was the creation of the Southside Schools Reading Collaborative, which targeted resources and support to six high needs schools that then showed the most growth on standardized assessments in the district. And Rubinstein and McCarthy's research shows that the district's students have higher achievement in the schools with stronger partnerships between teachers unions and school administration.

What Does It Look Like?

Those in education use the words "collaboration" and "partnership" quite liberally, often giving little to no details on what specifically good examples look like. But a 2011 set of case studies of six districts, including ABC, that have developed and sustained strong relationships between teachers and their unions and administrators while improving public education found thirteen common themes, including:

  • Emphasis on teacher quality, including professional development, new systems of evaluation, peer-to-peer assistance and mentoring programs
  • Focus on student performance, with districts creating opportunities for teachers and administrators to work together to analyze student performance to identify and focus on priority areas for improvement
  • Substantive problem-solving, innovation and willingness to experiment, working together to come up with new ways to address critical issues, with the partnership serving as a vehicle for improvement (not as the end in itself)
  • An organizational culture that values and supports collaboration, evidenced in part by leaders speaking of a culture of inclusion, involvement and communication, as well as respect for teachers as professionals and for their union
  • Collaborative structures at all levels in the district, with an infrastructure that promotes and facilitates collaborative decision-making in schools through building-level leadership teams, school improvement committees, school advisory councils or other such bodies that meet on regularly and play a key role in site-based decision making

Collaboration in Action: Common Core Implementation

When a district that has a strong collaborative culture undertakes a major initiative like implementing the Common Core, what does it look like? We at the Learning First Alliance recently interviewed two representatives of ABC to find out: Richard Saldana a high school teacher and department chair who also serves on the executive board of the ABC Federation of Teachers, and Tanya Golden, a sixth grade teacher who also serves as a teacher leader. Each shared their experience with the Common Core, and what emerged reinforced the notion that collaboration plays a key role in the day-to-day operations of the district, while also illustrating the importance of teacher voice and leadership in implementation.

What exactly does that mean?

It means that the district has had over 144 teachers on Common Core study teams for the past two years, and that the district convened teachers to develop and review instructional units when none were available.

Recognizing that Common Core implementation is an enormous undertaking, it means that teachers and district leaders worked together to identify three key academic focus areas for the school year: text dependent questions, writing from sources, and academic vocabulary (with each school site selecting one on which to concentrate).

And it means that the district provides teacher leaders like Golden to support them in that effort -- teacher leaders who meet monthly with the district's academic services division for professional learning to equip them with the skills they need to help schools succeed.

It means that teacher leaders like Saldana meet at least monthly with district leadership to discuss concerns that come forth from the teachers representative council of the union (which also meets monthly), so there's a constant flow of information between teacher and the district.

It means that teachers and administrators go together to school board sessions and parent information meetings, speaking with one voice.

It means that the district provides joint trainings for teachers and principals, with district officials and teacher leaders presenting information together. The goal: To send a unified message and ensure clear communication.

The Key Takeaway

The way that ABC has approached the Common Core -- and the way it approaches all issues -- seems intuitive. So why don't we hear more stories like theirs?

As Saldana put it, "I think the most important lesson for all of us is to find the time to collaborate. I think the biggest reason we don't collaborate is because it takes time."

But as the experience of ABC shows, finding that time makes improving student learning a whole lot easier.

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Rmooney's picture

My experience is that I am most effective as a teacher when there is collaboration among teachers. It has been so important that I don't just find time, I make time for it.

murraye02's picture

The key point here is the district culture "of shared planning, decision-making, and responsibility" that is "built on respect, commitment, and trust." All very powerful qualities, yet they do not exist in school districts of which I have been apart. What is interesting to me in the ABC district is that the whole argument for or against the Common Core State Standards isn't even an issue. Apparently the decision was made to implement the standards so the district just set out doing what it knows which is collaborating and communicating to provide the best teaching and learning experiences for all teachers and students.

ABCteachernews's picture

You're both right on target. Here in ABC we are about voice, the answers are always in the room. The Partnership is built on trust which is built over time through capacity building for both organizations. Leadership members then learns to be leaders together for the future. For a partnership you need to have strength and leadership skills both in the front office and in the classroom.

JrGangi's picture

I am a Special Ed teacher who runs a Community-Based Instruction program. Maybe someone can help advise me. My issue is; my Administrator (my BA in particular) and I butt heads over money pertaining to my class. Funding for my class (since it is a life skills course) is critical to my students learning. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I can go about making my BA understand the importance of my program, and how badly we need money in order to continue? Your help and advice is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

ABCteachernews's picture

Document your costs, needs, and the results of what you currently do in the classroom.
Data is king when you are looking at justifying your costs. Just my 2 cents... good luck.

EHubbard's picture

Kudos to ABC! It seems as though you have been successful at creating an environment that fosters trust among faculty and staff. So many districts struggle with trust. Without it, faculty and staff will never fully support the district goals.

I would add that "effective" collaboration involves two-way communication between administration and faculty. I am a teacher-leader in my district and we are going through a significant change for the better. We are working to address professional development, curriculum development, and creating an environment based on trust. Our administration understands and encourages "risk-taking" in the classroom. With this support, we are preparing our students with 21st Century skills and to be college and career ready.

Thank you for sharing your success story!

Amanda F's picture

Collaboration is often mentioned and opportunities are often provided in regard to teacher-teacher collaboration (i.e. PLC opportunities, peer observation, etc). On the other hand, it is not often mentioned between administrator and teacher. Many teachers feel disconnected from their administrators and often feel as though their administrators are unaware of what is going on in their department, teachings, school, etc. It is refreshing to hear about the district known as ABC and the importance it places on collaboration between teachers as well as teachers and administrators. This is something that all districts should consider. If administrators and teachers were to collaborate, teachers would feel supported, understood, and climate would increase.

The Common Core has been a major area of discussion between parents, teachers, and administrators. I believe that ABC is taking the Common Core implementation in a positive direction and all should consider this. Through this collaborative nature teachers are provided with the opportunity to have a voice, examine instruction in great depth, and collaborate with administrators, which provides teacher support. I am curious as to why more districts have not adopted this methodology while implementing the Common Core into their current school systems? Hopefully, as administrators and teachers become more aware of collaborative district successes, such as ABC, the mindset and actions of other districts may adjust.

Amanda F's picture

ABCteachernews, your statement "data is king" resonated with me. As a speech language pathologist, I am constantly taking data to show progress. I believe that the ability to show data provides teachers with the understanding of why they are doing what they are doing, how it has made a positive impact, and what needs to still be adjusted. Although, you mentioned this in a cost standpoint, this can be utilized in any area.

matpompa92's picture

I believe that it is absolutely necessary for educators and administrators to constantly collaborate on issues relevant to the implementation of the Common Core. If this is a recurring issue in schools then administrators need to reflect back on data to assist them in making decisions weather its based on department funding or quality improvement.

Bryson Williams's picture

My favorite part of this post is that the district is providing top down support and professional development to administrators and teachers. They are also hearing concerns from teachers, administrators, and parents. This willingness to work with the community creates that buy-in and allows for less confusion and more student success.

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