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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It has become an article of faith in the Washington thinktankocracy that teachers are the most important factor in their students' success. That's not an entirely bad thing. What professional doesn't want to be thought important?

But think-tank dwellers often draw the wrong conclusions from this claim. Most of their talk about teachers focuses on how to fire the bad ones, hire the good ones, and pay the really good ones. Too few people spare a thought for the environment and support teachers need to succeed.

Things would probably change if policymakers and the pundits who feed them spent more time in successful schools around the country. That's one of the core beliefs that fuel our work at the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 major education associations. Like the people at Edutopia, we spend a lot of time collecting stories about what is actually working in public schools across the country. One thing we've learned along the way: Good teachers are the product of nurture, not just nature.

If policymakers visited more schools, they would learn to value the conditions for teaching and learning. Take, for example, Viers Mill Elementary School in Maryland. The school went from struggling to exemplary without firing jaded veterans or importing eager young superstars. Instead, it created a culture where its teachers could collaborate, learn from each other, and grow as professionals.

And Viers Mill isn't alone in this approach. Have a look at Seaford Middle School in Delaware, Hernandez-Hughes Elementary in New York, Adlai Stephenson High School in Illinois, Aliceville Middle School in Alabama, or the Murphy K-8 School in Massachusetts. Collaboration and support are in the DNA of these schools and many others we've profiled on our website, Public School Insights.

Who isn't all for collaboration, motherhood and apple pie? It seems a truism. But a trip to these schools will remind you that true collaboration requires more than just a collegial climate. It takes careful, planning, focus, attention to detail, and staying power.

    In schools we've profiled, "collaboration" doesn't mean much without:
  • Clear and specific goals the entire staff is willing to own.
  • Frequent, structured meetings where teachers work together to address individual children's needs.
  • Sustained staff development that hews to school goals and focuses on continuous improvement.
  • Transparency that allows teachers to share their best work and learn from each other.
  • Shared leadership of school reform strategies. Teachers can't very well collaborate if they only follow orders.

There's even more to collaboration than I have space for here, but you get the point. It's a hard-nosed reform strategy, not just a fine sentiment. And that's a vital reason to keep telling stories about what is working in public schools.

In the coming year, this new blog will share important lessons my colleagues and I have learned from the nation's most successful schools. We're honored to help Edutopia close the yawning gap between what many policymakers seem to believe and what people in schools actually experience.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pattipeg Harjo's picture
Pattipeg Harjo
High school Spanish teacher, Norman, Oklahoma

I learned a long time ago that sometimes the slower you go, the faster you get there. Administrators don't want to take time out of the school day to give to teachers for collaboration--it takes time away from student learning. They end up going so fast to achieve their goals (passing state-mandated tests) that frequently they miss the target altogether. Taking time out for teacher collaboration would keep them on course.

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of MiddleWeb.com

You can't get too much Claus von Zastrow. Great to see him here at Edutopia.

Steve Dahlberg's picture
Steve Dahlberg
Director, International Centre for Creativity and Imagination

I agree that a culture of collaborating and learning from each other is important -- but rarely happens. I worked with a large group of teachers last spring, exploring creativity, learning, involvement, motivation, passion and inspiration. One of the things that came up during our time together was the great gift of hearing what other teachers -- their colleagues -- thought and did. They were reminded of why they do what they do. They were re-inspired by their colleagues' examples and stories. They made creative connections between disciplines and topics. One of the challenges of transforming education from "as it is" to "as it might be" is indeed creating opportunities for teachers to collaborate with, learn from and grow with each other.

Kali S's picture
Kali S
k-8 Virtual educator

I feel very fortunate to have been a teacher in a school environment that VALUED, and HONORED a Professional Learning Community (capital, P, L and C). My administrator brought the "concept" to the staff and gave us resources (training and books by famous authors, DuFour) and TIME in our professional day. We were given time to TALK, PLAN, SHARE and LEARN. We were a strong staff and learned to become more respectful of our "teammates" or colleagues, OUR students and ourselves. I wish that every administrate allowed and encouraged teachers to work together especially by giving the time and direction to do so! :)

Claus von Zastrow's picture
Blogger 2014

Thanks for your comment, Steve. Your point about ambiguity is well taken. It's tough to get very precise within a 500-word limit, but I suspect practitioners like Pattipeg Harjo or KS, or consultants like Steve Dahlberg, could add specificity from their own experience. It's dangerous to become too prescriptive, but from my experience goals originate from staff AND administration.

As for meeting time and common planning time--schools and districts simply have to make time, as difficult as that sounds. Viers Mill had highly trained para-educators cover classes while teachers spent time in meetings. Some schools have early dismissal on some days to reserve time for teacher meetings. As Linda Darling-Hammond and others have demonstrated, common planning time is a central feature in successful school systems around the world. Surely the scheduling isn't impossible--if we don't create policy barriers.

And, yes, continuous improvement is now among the most common education buzz-words--much like "collaboration," "Professional Learning Community," and many others. But that's no reason to discard the ideas those buzz words represent. That's one of the points I tried to bring across, with only middling success. This is hard work. It requires precision, commitment and planning. And it can't be easily conveyed in the small space of a blog posting.

My bigger concern, however, is that the prevailing conversations among policymakers these days barely address the *conditions* for excellent teaching. Policy makers are more intent on finding the best teachers and giving the worst ones the boot. In doing so, they miss a big part of the picture.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Effective leaders in schools hire and retain the best. Teachers that do not make the grade have to go (tenure or not). Collaboration is important, but principals and especially central office admin have to support such a climate. Less effective districts lack the coherence for improvement.

Eric Schaps's picture
Eric Schaps
President, Developmental Studies Center, Oakland CA

You are exactly right. Teaching is mainly learned on the job and much of the intrinsic satisfaction that teachers experience comes from learning with their colleagues under reasonable working conditions.

Here's hoping that LFA has greater sway in the formation of federal policy....

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

All of your comments are honest and inspiring. The most important point made is that education is a on the job experience. Every year you learn something new, from teachers, the school culture and the world we live in . But, mostly for me, I learn something new FROM MY STUDENTS! They are the reason I get up every morning to go to work. The children are the stimulation for my creative thinking and the motivation that keeps me well informed and on task.

It is what I see in their eyes that keep me going.

As for public policy, I have always said: If every politician were to visit their local school for a week, and join one child and partner with them included eat the breakfast, snack, lunch and wear the gym clothes and do the homework, there would be a different public policy. I doubt if that many politicians would be able to keep up with all the demanding homework and the cirriculum. The short and long term assignments and the holiday work may be somewhat overwhelming. They may all consider listening more to teachers than researchers. It should be one of the requirements for running for any office:Spend a week with a 7/8 grader and pass the Standardized Tests and have your parents attend the meetings!

Jason Tislow's picture

I don't know what to think about all this. The first thought that pops into my head is time. Like mentioned above where are the teachers/administration going to find enough time to "collaborate". Early dismissal, and substitute teachers don't quite cut it in my opinion. The less time you spend with the students, the less you accomplish with them. I also don't see the point of a math teacher needing to collaborate with a history teacher. Besides chances are not everyone will get along. Some teachers think they know everything there is to know already. I see a lot of flaws in this idea, but I'm not against trying it. It's just another step forward for education. sunday school lessons

Lisa B's picture

I agree with this article. Teachers need to be motivated and work in an environment that is supportive of their work and allows them to collaborate with other teachers and staff members. I understand that during the day our mission is to improve student learning but maybe there should be a set time before or after school to where teachers and administration can discuss what the expectations are and current school issues just not a typical lecture staff meeting. Teachers are expected to make time for students and parents and this expectation is the same among the administration making time for their teachers. Just the same as students, teachers needs to be communicated with along the way to understand who they are doing and if the administration sees need for improvement or wants to recognize good efforts.

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