Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Teachers Need To Collaborate More

In an Atlantic essay, Jeffery Mirel and Simona Goldin report on teacher isolation
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.
The authors report that other counties emphasize collaboration, and that American teachers do not oppose collaboration.
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.
Corporate reformers, politicians like Governor Daugaard, and bureaucrats like Secretary of Education Melody Schopp see merit pat as an essential element of reform.  Mirel and Golden report that merit pay may hinder collaboration efforts.
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.
Several quick points about the Mirel's and Golden's fears. First, merit pay advocates will no doubt scream that teachers who don't collaborate because someone else may get a bonus are hypocrites.  These merit pay advocates fail to explain how a bonus that is allegedly large enough to motivate people to do a better job is not large enough to motivate people to keep their best ideas to themselves.  The business world seems to view employees who work hard to get a bonus by freezing out their colleagues as valuable, motivated workers not hypocrites.

These reformers also don't explain why merit pay is worth the risk.  As the Mirel and Golden point out, "[t]he jury is still out regarding the effectiveness of . . . [merit pay] reforms."

Schools need to change.  Increasing collaboration is a good step; unfortunately, political gamesmanship will probably prevent collaboration from happening.

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