Teachers Working with Teachers: Reform through Collaboration and Continuity of Leadership (Part 1)

Want to give a “no excuses” reformer a stroke? Suggest that teachers working together on a daily basis have a better shot at improving teaching and learning than the highly marketed structural changes of standards-based testing and accountability, Common Core standards, more charter schools, and evaluating educator performance through student scores.

Too many reform-driven policymakers high on the rhetoric of these current reforms ignore how much improvement in teaching and learning can occur when  teachers work collectively in their classrooms and schools to improve their content knowledge and teaching skills aimed at common district goals.

For many years, teachers, administrators, researchers, and a sprinkling of policymakers have concentrated on both traditional and innovative professional development and learning communities to build teachers’ capacities in knowledge of subject and teaching skills to improve instruction in schools and districts. Such school-based efforts converge on the teacher simply because within the complex system of schooling the teacher-student relationship is fundamental to student learning and that relationship is forged initially in the classroom.

Let me be clear about what I mean by “improve instruction” through professional development and learning communities. In my blog and other writings, I have described frequent efforts of reform-driven academics and policymakers to shift the dominant teacher-centered pedagogy (e.g., delivering more knowledge and skills to students, bound to texts, homework, teacher telling, etc.) to a more student-centered one (e.g., big ideas tied to multi-theme curricula, project-based learning, focus on student decision-making and problem solving).  For many top-down reformers (except for those pushing online instruction),  “improve” means shifting teacher-centered to student-centered instruction . The assumption being that such pedagogies will engage students and get them to manage their learning better than when directed wholly by teachers and textbooks. In doing so, goals of independent thinking and life-long learning will be achieved.

For the most part, these top-down efforts through new and renovated structures such as charter schools, technologies, and accountability harnessed to testing regimes have failed to substantially change teaching practices. Individually and collectively, teachers have, of course, made changes by creating hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction. As practical professionals working in the complex environment of the classroom, a broad repertoire of teaching activities and tasks has a better chance of working on diverse student motivations, interests, and aptitudes than any doctrinaire pedagogy.

Professional development and learning communities are, of course, structures. They do differ, however, in design, adaptability, and focus on teachers and teaching than those structures and programs that policymakers have copied from the private sector (e.g., Total Quality Management, competency-based standards, Management by Objectives, accountability and testing). These borrowed structures have been inadequate in coping with interdependent, unpredictable complex school systems especially in changing substantially what occurs in classrooms. But structures designed and aimed at working with individuals and groups of teachers in schools through professional development—often awful, sometimes practical, and occasionally inspirational–have existed for decades.

What promises to increase the worth of district-wide professional development, especially if based within schools and involving teachers in the planning, are those efforts concentrating on prevailing beliefs among teachers about teaching and how students learn, current norms in the school community, and classroom practices. When teachers work together to examine student work and analyze classroom lessons, they figure out collectively what works and doesn’t work and they build a culture of learning across grade levels in elementary schools and within departments in secondary schools. They build trusting relationships with peers  and learn from one another —a scarce resource because isolation is endemic across age-graded schools. The resulting pedagogical capital blends ambitious lessons and traditional ones of teacher- and student-centered practices, rather than a single one-best way of teaching. Such hybrids of teaching, working within adaptable structures of professional development and site-based learning communities, are tailored for complex, web-like systems like schools.

When teachers collaborate within schools and districts, they create and sustain climates that support “good” and “successful” teaching drawn from different pedagogies. Such collaboration comes far closer to achieving “good” student learning than big-ticket structural reforms such as funding, authorizing charter schools, mayoral control of schools, accountability and testing, and new curricula. Whether such sustained collaboration and creation of these communities in schools can significantly change routine practices and produce gains in student achievement has yet to emerge clearly. Yet even without clear evidence that such communities of practice are successful by current metrics, supporting teachers to figure out together what works best with their students—rather than error-prone policymakers directing their efforts to “improve practice”—remains worthwhile in building their capacities while forging strong relationships with students (see PDF research.vescio_ross_adams )

Hard as it is to create and sustain such communities within schools, a few examples would help. In some elementary and secondary schools,  teachers come together voluntarily to determine how and what their students are learning. They analyze common problems that arise in lessons and teaching district curriculum standards; they observe one another and see how colleagues use blends of old and new practices; they build trust, cooperate, and focus on instructional improvement. They try out activities and lessons a peer used.  They create a culture of learning.

The work of Fred Newmann, Rick DuFour, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert,  Anthony Bryk, Judith Little (Little_et_al_2003), and many others profile elementary grade-level teams and secondary academic departments sprouting slowly into school-based learning communities. From “Hancock” elementary school in Chicago to Boones Mill elementary school in rural Virginia, from Aragon high school’s social science department in San Mateo (CA) to Lakeside Southwest (WA) high school’s science department, teachers forged teams over time that trusted one another as they worked together on instructional improvement. 1

At Aragon high school in San Mateo, CA, for example, the social studies department for the past 50 years has had three department heads. Don Hill headed the Aragon social studies department for over 20 years since the early-1960s. He helped to create the norms and climate that fostered social studies teachers to become a “learning community.” Lee Swenson, a teacher in the department since the late-1960s, succeeded Hill when he left Aragon for a subsequent career in service learning. Swenson served as department chair for 20 years before retiring. Cristina Trujillo, who apprenticed with Swenson as a student-teacher and then taught in the department is now department head.

Lee Swenson told an interviewer: “[T]eachers in the social studies …department … share an office, which becomes a central gathering place. During lunch each day, anywhere from 15 to 25 teachers show up and swap ideas about lesson plans, tests and classroom management.” Swenson says teachers … are so close that a group of 20, including spouses, took a ski trip. “That’s a missing ingredient for a lot of teachers. It makes you want to go to school, and not just for students,” he says. 2

In such communities, teachers agree to disagree. They trade techniques and lessons. Teacher beliefs shift. Teaching practices change. Teacher isolation and insulation from one another—the effects of age-graded school structures–bit by bit disappear. And some of these learning communities had sufficient continuity in teacher and principal leadership to have lasted for decades.

1.  “Hancock” Elementary is a pseudonym for a Chicago school. See Anthony Bryk, et. al., Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Chicago:University of Chicago Press,2010); Richard DuFour writes about Boones Mill elementary school in: “What Is a Professional Learning Community?” Educational Leadership, 2004, 61(8), pp. 6-11; For Lakeside Southwest high school’s science department, see Douglas Larkin, Scott Seyforth, and Holly Lasky, “Implementing and Sustaining Science Curriculum Reform: A Study of Leadership among Teachers within a High School Science Department,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2009, 46(7), pp. 813-835;

2. Don Hill, “The Strong Department: Building the Department as Learning Community,” in Leslie Siskin and Judith Little (Eds.) The Subject in Question: Departmental Organization and the High School (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995), pp. 123-140;  I have listened to and spoken with the above teachers for the past 25 years.  I team taught a university curriculum and instruction course with Swenson for a decade. Quote from Swenson comes from Christine Foster, “Why Teach? Stanford  Magazine, September/October 2001 at: http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2001/sepoct/features/whyteach.html


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

14 responses to “Teachers Working with Teachers: Reform through Collaboration and Continuity of Leadership (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    Larry Cuban is a leading writer and researcher in the area of school reform or I think a better way to phrase it is a lack of true reform. He points out several key points in this excellent article. One, top down measures are not the order of the day. Second, schooling and learning (my added word) at all ages are complex systems and are forged out of relationship not transactional acclivities. This nature does not invite top-down. It encourages community and collaboration. The leading thinkers he refers to part way through the article are a short but impressive list. I would add others who contribute in many ways i.e. Deb Meier, James Comer, and Nel Noddings come to mind. Finally, real communities actually are dysfunctional. It is what we do in those moments that leads us to collaboration. Joining hands around the camp fire is nice, but only superficially functional. Agree to disagree is sometimes the path. I read another blog today and my conclusion is slow is sometimes the way forward.
    We in Canada who think we are doing something better are wrong. We need the same wake up calls, a new conversation, and a reimagining of schooling and learning. Note I did not say school. That is the brick and mortar that in some cases is passe.

  2. Bret Biornstad

    Generally I agree with the ideas posted here with a few points of emphasis.

    1) A professional learning community is only as strong as its weakest link. Some members whom are very strong-willed or perhaps have a great deal of experience can often sway other members to their way of thinking, rightly or wrongly. For example one team member may be using the same book report format they’ve used for years and influence others to do the same, without critical examination of whether or not that format is the best fit to current standards, will increase student learning, etc. Keen oversight by administrators is necessary to correct these practices.

    2) If a professional learning community is seen as part of professional development is has been shown that professional development is highly effective in increasing learning. However, as John Hattie points out in his book Visible Learning (2009), “…effects on student learning were very much a function of professional development that challenged the teachers’ prevailing discourse and conceptions about learning…, or challenging teachers how to teach particular curricula more effectively. Fifth, teachers talking to teachers about teaching (involvement in a professional community of practice) was necessary but not sufficient by itself. This was because teachers were more listened to when challenging problematic beliefs and testing the efficacy of competing ideas, and when discussions were grounded in artifacts representing student learning.” This last point is difficult to arrive at when again there is not a spirit of open-mindedness amongst that particular cohort.

    3) Again I believe it is paramount for the school’s administrators to be extremely involved with their professional learning communities throughout the year. Otherwise all of this teacher-talk can lead to mere sharing and/or tweaking of past curriculum calendars, other busy-work, or creation of ineffective common assessments, etc., none of which will increase student learning.

  3. Every decade or so, the definition of reform changes. You mention that today’s Top-Down reformers want to move away from teacher-centered pedagogy to student-centered methodologies. While the article does a great job describing the collaborative issues in teaching, it errors in terms of where you describe current reform efforts to place emphasis on student-based higher order thinking skills. Nothing could be further from the truth. The current reform movement’s main plank is to reduce to provision of these skills and in its place put a system of common core standards and high stakes testing which conforms to rote skills, memorization, and teaching to the text and test where texts take on the role of teacher-guide of direction of student study of information only relevant to test scores.

    That is, the new reformers are not teacher centered, nor are they student centered. They are test oriented, leaving out all those great things you discuss regarding student-centered teaching. Student-centered curriculum and implementation works well when at least 80% of the class can read. Where 80% can understand what they read and know how to organize, find resources for additional information, etc. Now, in San Mateo, Palo Alto, and other high income areas, the student-centered methods work well as these cities are not dependent upon federal funding as the local tax base covers the costs of public education. But, in Title I schools and other schools who don’t have the income advantaged parents and community, most students come to class unprepared to be able to work in a student-centered atmosphere, incorporating the higher order thinking skills, as most of those students come from areas, families, who do not possess the resources available to students in affluent areas.

    The top-down reform today, today, is all about step ranking students via testing outcomes, by-passing everything true learning is all about. The wealthy kids have private schools. And that’s not to say that public schools are not up to the task. Private school does not necessarily mean good learning. But the today’s reformers are out to take down public education, bust unions, and provided a script for students that match the crappy jobs they’ll get when they graduate. The elite students, those who do get schooling unimpaired with competitive Race to the Top, NCLB mandates, who receive an education based upon higher order thinking skills, will have bigger doors of opportunity available to them.

  4. Pingback: Teachers Working with Teachers: Reform through Collaboration and ... | Digital collaboration in the 21st century | Scoop.it

  5. It is clear that you understand the ill-advised direction of the current reform movement. I wish to clarify my previous response

    The current direction of top down reform by charters, etc., is anything but student centered. Through teacher collaboration efforts (if they are allowed to collaborate), it is the very use of higher order thinking skills that is the desired result with their students. Current ed reform is NOTHING about HOTS. In fact, reform in Texas has shown to be in favor of removing critical thinking skills from their curriculum. Critical thinking is best cultivated when students are at proficient reading levels and the pedagogy is student-centered. You want my footnotes, let me know.

  6. Pingback: Teachers Working with Teachers: Reform through Collaboration and ... | Professional Learning Communities in Elementary Schools | Scoop.it

  7. Pingback: Teachers Working with Teachers: Reform through Collaboration and Continuity of Leadership (Part 1) | Accomplished California Teachers Education News | Scoop.it

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  9. The use of “Texas” in any discussion of reform is misguided. Texas is far from having any reform that makes sense. 1. They have one of the most regressive tax structures in the country. 2. They also have one of the most regressive and non-equitable funding systems. 3. They reduced school funding by over 5 billion dollars over the last two years even with 160 thousand new students being added to the system during the same time period. 4. The republication leaders are prepared to further cut funding in the name of not raising any more revenue. Texas is clearly on a downward track. They limit what they allow their teachers to accomplish what is needed to make all students successful. Read the following post to gain some incite into what is expected of teachers in Texas.


  10. Pingback: how is microsoft like a department of education? « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice

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