Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated (Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin)

Jeffrey Mirel is an historian of education at the University of Michigan. Simona  Goldin is a research specialist at the same university working on the Teacher Education Initiative. Their post appeared online at The Atlantic, April 17, 2012.

On the first day of their first year teaching, new teachers walk into their schools and meet their colleagues. They might talk about the latest state assessments, textbooks that have just arrived, or the newest project the district is spearheading. Some veteran teachers may tell the newcomers “how things are done” at the schools. And then, as teachers have done since the founding of public education in the U.S., they take leave of one another, walk to their classrooms to meet their students, and close the door.

In his classic 1975 book, Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie described teacher isolation as one of the main structural impediments to improved instruction and student learning in American public schools. Lortie argued that since at least the 19th century teachers have worked behind closed doors, rarely if ever collaborating with colleagues on improving teaching practice or examining student work. “Each teacher,” Lortie wrote, “… spent his teaching day isolated from other adults; the initial pattern of school distribution represented a series of ‘cells’ which were construed as self-sufficient.”

This situation continues to the present day. A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. The majority of American teachers plan, teach, and examine their practice alone.

In other countries, such as Finland and Japan, where students outperform those in the U.S. in international tests such as PISA and TIMMS, collaboration among teachers is an essential aspect of instructional improvement. The problem is not that American teachers resist collaboration. Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of U.S. teachers believe that providing time to collaborate with colleagues is crucial to retaining good teachers.

So what would it take structurally to enable teachers to work collaboratively for improved learning outcomes?

Answering this question demands changes in some longstanding American public school structures. Perhaps the most important change is in school curricula. One of the key differences between public education in the U.S. and elsewhere is the lack of a common curriculum. In other countries common curricula unite the work of teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, students, and parents. With a common curriculum there is agreement about what students are expected to learn, what teachers are to teach, what teacher educators are to instill in potential teachers, and what tests of student learning should measure.

A common curriculum for the nearly 100,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. could be a major step towards productive teacher collaboration. It would align the scope and sequence of what should be taught and learned, and teachers could collaborate with one another on lessons day by day. They could look at student work and assessments of student learning of that curriculum, and could coordinate their instruction to remediate and enhance student understanding.

There is some hope that this could actually come to pass. Today, 45 states and the District of Columbia have committed to the Common Core, a set of curricular standards that are meant to drive instruction and assessment. While the Common Core is not an elaborated curriculum, it is definitely a move in the right direction.

However, even the best curriculum is not self-enacting. Time and money need to be invested to support teachers’ understanding of the curriculum and to develop an ethos of collaboration within schools. Also needed are ongoing professional development programs to support teachers’ substantive work together.

While we are making good headway in support of these efforts, one problem looms. A number of contemporary reformers have put great faith in the idea that teacher competition (e.g., merit pay) can dramatically improve educational outcomes. The jury is still out regarding the effectiveness of such reforms, but we greatly fear that such policies will undermine teachers’ collaborative work. Ironically, competitive teacher assessment schemes could reinforce teacher isolation. If teachers are competing with one another for merit pay, why should they collaborate with one another? They might as well go back behind their closed doors.

We hope that that is not the case. Done well, greater collaboration among teachers is a promising and important change in school structure. Contemporary teachers are no longer wedded to the “cellular organization” Lortie described. Indeed, many of them recognize the potential value of collaboration for retaining skilled teachers and supporting school improvement.

Teachers tell us that they do not want to close the doors to their classrooms after a brief introductory “hello.” They want to collaborate with one another to enrich teaching and support students’ learning. We need to find the resources and opportunities to help them do so.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

21 responses to “Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated (Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin)

  1. “So what would it take structurally to enable teachers to work collaboratively for improved learning outcomes?”

    The developments in technology which provide opportunities for communities of practice,networking,co-construction,collaboration and communication have surely made a contributuion here Larry?

    I am not sure whether our Principals,Headteachers and education leaders have yet to fully exploit the potential of these technologies?

  2. ” If teachers are competing with one another for merit pay, why should they collaborate with one another?”

    My experience of merit-based pay at Microsoft–where I worked before switching to teaching–is that accountability to organization goals means more collaboration, not less. If you aren’t performing your job, will be held accountable to that, and start building a reputation of doing that, then you can rest assured your rating will be on the floor at annual review time. Whereas the more people you help and collaborate with, the more your reputation grows that you are focused on the goals of the organization, and know that collaboration is key.

    To assert the opposite (without research?) seems like fear-mongering to me.

    • larrycuban

      Perhaps, John. If you have ever experienced performance-based pay (or evaluation) on the basis of student test scores, you might not feel as confident as you do about collaboration being so sensible or natural in organizations.

  3. For students to be successful, teachers must unite to focus on student learning. Working in isolation is limiting, risky, and foolish, as only one adult is assumed to contribute to a student’s growth, with the hope that he/she is able to do so in all situations.

    A common curriculum is a solid way for those adults to build

  4. Pingback: Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated (Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin) @LarryCuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  5. Cal

    I would like a bit more collaboration than I’ve had for the past three years, in two schools–mainly, none. My student teacher school had what I would consider an appropriate amount of collaboration: course-alike meetings, common assessments, similar schedules.

    However, most teachers I’ve run into actively resist collaboration, even the minimal amount I described above. Teachers *like* the independence.

    And while I just said I thought a minimal amount is appropriate, I would not want the degree of collaboration desired by most people who make collaboration an issue. I’d take total isolation first.

    • larrycuban

      It seems to me that the choice of “isolation” that you and many other teachers make–including myself when I taught in high school–comes from the structure of the age-graded school. That mid-19th century structure which established self-contained classrooms with each teacher and a group of students separate from the teacher next door has insulated and isolated teachers from most forms of collaboration for nearly two centuries. The open-space elementary schools of the late-1960s and 1970s soon had bookcases and portable walls closing off open-spaces into, yeah, you guessed it: self-contained classrooms. Teacher collaboration in high schools is even harder to accomplish because of departmental organization. “Teacher professional communities” is a fairly recent development that tries to overcome the structural influence of age-graded schools. And not a mention of that structure in the Mirel/Goldin post.

      • Cal

        I agree that the structural influence caused much of the isolation. But remember, we choose our jobs. Don’t you think that the people who stay in teaching are those that enjoy the independence? The “teacher professional communities” will not be welcome to people who prefer to be by themselves.

        It has always interested me that progressives (who are usually behind the teacher professional communities) and eduformers (who are usually behind the merit-based pay initiatives) don’t understand the degree to which their proposals are unattractive to the existing population of teachers–and whether or not their proposals will be appealing to the sort of people who find teaching attractive.

  6. Simon Robinson

    Teachers talking to each other is key. But isn’t a better focus for the collaboration how rather than what teachers teach? E.g. How do you gather evidence of student learning and provide feedback in your classroom?
    There’s some research out there somewhere I believe (Hattie? Dylan Wiliam maybe?)

    • larrycuban

      The substance of collaboration can be the what and how–and many other topics–of what is salient for teachers.

  7. Would definitely love to see more collaboration amongst teachers. I think one reason teachers choose to be independent is a lot of collaboration time isn’t used effectively. With a lot on the teachers’ plates, preparing for collaborative planning tends to get pushed down on the priorities list. Take these comments with a grain of salt though as I’m basing this off of only three years in the classroom. But, having seen schools where collaborative planning is well thought out, it seems really valuable.

    I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the use of social networks like Edmodo and Twitter to connect with other educators and developers making products for teachers. These so called personal learning networks have been valuable in finding other teachers to collaborate with across networks and I’m really excited about the potential of Common Core. I hope that there is a huge spike in the number of teachers who share their resources via websites like and and join conversations both in their schools and online.

  8. Bob Calder

    For online collaboration, there are plenty of paths. Twitter works well (if you follow the #edchat hashtag) and the G+ academic circles are very active. I have used yet other sorts of collaborative devices.

    The common curriculum may be an example of intracourse networking, but I have not heard of any research that teases apart *any* collaborative practices. Is same curriculum cooperation more efficient than cross curriculum at improving an institution? What about expanding informal social networks? How about comparing the effectiveness of different networks?

    At a former school, I had a social space that I invited other teachers to visit in the early morning. Several of us met for coffee and for lunch on a daily basis. Having the same students take courses in parallel and collaborating on themes was hugely useful to me and to them. We also used phone calls, chat, email, our LMS, and face to face as appropriate. This taught me two things. Physical space is very important and cross curriculum planning is very important. My collaborators were teaching design, electronics, programming, AP English, and physics. It is also possible that highly competent people need to be able to interact on a different level than a common curriculum framework implies.

    I’m saying that lack of network infrastructure and oppressive structures are what keep people isolated. Isolation isn’t a simple thing, nor has embracing its continuance in the enterprise been an innocent thing. Isolation is deliberate and debilitating.

    • larrycuban

      Online and face-to-face collaboration are not mutually exclusive and work well in tandem for those teachers who seek out others to share and learn from. See comments from Cal and Jin-Soo for differences in beliefs about the degree of collaboration they want. And then there are those who seek out the constrained independence of the self-contained classroom and treasure it.

  9. Pingback: Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated | Common Core State Standards for School Leaders |

  10. Before you rush down the rosy path to the common curriculum…beware of the inevitable dumbing down that will ensue the moment politically appointed subject experts, start trying to define what kids should and should not study. Some of us are trying to claw our way out of that mire in the UK at present.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s