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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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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.

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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.

monkap's picture

Hello Anne, this is a wonderful article. I agree with your position. Teachers cannot bring about a change without an administrator, but administrators in turn need feedback from teachers, and their classroom observations. It is an unfortunate reality that many times policies are being developed and implemented by individuals who have no idea what is actually going on in a classroom. I find this particularly relevant in Aboriginal Education, where education frameworks are being developed without the consultation of Aboriginal Educators themselves. Consultation with local community educators is absolutely necessary, because they have the cultural wisdom that is essential to ensuring that culture-base education is provided.

It's amazing to see that there is actually evidence based research which suggests that collaboration improves student achievement- which of coruse is the fundamental goal of educators across the globe. I know that teachers and administrators are both very, very busy individuals with numerous tasks to accomplish on a daily basis. I was wondering when and how these individuals come together? Is time taken out of something else? Is this done outside of school hours? Are student learning hours compromised for staff meetings?

I think consultation across groups within a school is a wonderful idea. The more voices that are shared, the more powerful and better-informed decisions that can be made!

monkap's picture

Hello murraye02, I appreciate you mentioning the reality of many school districts face. ABC seems to be quite successful because it has a fundamental basis for establishing some a powerful collaborative inquiry group. In many schools that I have seem, commitment is a big issue because schools have high teacher turn-over rates, and frequently changing administration. In an unstable work environment it would be difficult to find the time to train and educate staff on collaboration. Thanks for sharing,

monkap's picture

Hello ABCteachernews, after reading through your awesome success story I was wondering what recommendations you would make for establishing such a wonderful collaboration environment where teacher turn-over rate is high. As a new teacher, recently I have been working in a couple month intervals at a variety of schools. This is true for many of the staff at the schools at any given time. If teachers are constantly being switched, what are some strategies we could use? Implementing board-wide changes would also be challenging since my current board has roughly 650 schools. Looking forward to hearing your insight!

ABCteachernews's picture

The District and Union are networks. District networks are over taxed by the tasks of following regulations, logistics, and balancing worksite needs. Unions are natural communication networks that can create cohesion among teachers. Some teachers thrive at following a contract but even more teacher thrive on the stimulating task of synthesizing and delivering of curriculum. When the union and district work in tandem to address supporting teachers in curriculum design and support you are ble to navigate changes quicker and with flexibility. For a new teacher I would look to systems that support your desire to learn and grow your professionalism to find like minded individuals and groups. When unions and districts fail to provide that support look to social media to gain insight and support for curriculum needs. Labor management relations need to focus on bread and butter issues that feel the body but also about innovating ideas and curriculum support to feed the mind.

ABCteachernews's picture

Partnerships start with understanding a common language and the desire to find overlapping goals. Read the book Fierce Conversations, it is the foundational basis for all conversations that happen in ABC. It's not just a way to do business but a way creating better communication at work and home.

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