AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Supporting the Collective Practice of Teachers
Current education policy developments ignore what research clearly demonstrates: when teachers collaborate with and learn from each other, they become better practitioners and their students have higher outcomes. Two major reform efforts in particular — district decentralization and competitive human capital development — ignore an emerging understanding of the power of teachers’ collective practice.
The traditional “egg-crate” model of teaching and learning has been dominant in the United States for decades, where individual teachers are isolated behind the closed doors of their classrooms (Johnson 2010). This traditional model has been discarded by most of the world’s successful school systems, which recognize that having highly qualified but isolated teachers is not enough (Fullan 2010). Developing schools with a high level of human capital (i.e., a staff of individual teachers who have advanced skills and knowledge)and a high level of social capital (i.e., where teachers interact regularly with each other) is necessary for all teachers and students to succeed. But new human capital reforms, which evaluate teachers individually, and district decentralization, which isolates schools from one another and pits them against one another as competitors, actively work against the notion of teachers utilizing each other to become better practitioners.
This concept of collective practice, where teaching is not just an individual act but a collective and connected activity within and beyond school walls, is quickly being recognized by researchers and educators as a highly effective tool to improve both teaching and learning. The development of school professional learning communities, or PLCs, has been one popular approach, and high quality examples of PLCs, implemented school- or even districtwide, have led to significant improvements in teaching and learning (McLaughlin & Talbert 2006; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Karhanek 2010). Networked learning communities, like the National Writing Project, link teachers across schools around a common strand of work and provide teachers with opportunities to learn from a distributed network of colleagues. More centralized approaches to developing high quality collective practice have been highly successful in other countries like Canada and England (Hargreaves & Shirley 2010).
Research evidence supports the value of collective practice above and beyond the individual contributions of teachers to student learning. Pil and Leana (2009) found that teachers’ ties and relationships to other teachers significantly predicted student achievement gains above and beyond individual teacher experience and classroom ability. Furthermore, combining a high level of social capital with a high level of human capital had an even greater positive impact on student achievement. And newer research approaches to social capital, using social network theory, have begun to uncover how knowledge spreads (or doesn't spread) within school organizations (Daly 2010).
Education reforms, especially technical reforms largely designed outside of schools, no matter how well intentioned will not be successful in schools with a low level of human and/or social capital. So while the Common Core standards, and related curriculum and assessments, have the potential to create a “common language” for teachers to develop a strong collective practice, traditional top-down implementation will be insufficient. And without giving teachers the “slack resources,” i.e., time and space within the school day to be able to work with colleagues to develop a common understanding and implementation of these standards (Leana 2010), it will be merely another layer of reform on top of multiple, and often conflicting, mandates (Talbert 2011). The research is clear: effective education reform policies must expand their focus beyond the efforts of individual teachers and support the collective capacity of a school’s entire teaching community.
Daly, A., ed. 2010. Social Network Theory and Educational Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press
Dufour, R., R. Dufour, R. Eaker, and G. Karhanek. 2010. Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever it Takes. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Fullan, M. 2010. All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform.Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Hargreaves, A. and D. Shirley. 2009. The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Johnson, S. M. 2010. “How Best to Add Value? Strike a Balance between the Individual and the Organization in School Reform.” Voices in Urban Education, no. 27.
Leana, C. 2010. “Social Capital: The Collective Component of Teaching.” Voices in Urban Education, no. 27. publisher
Leana, C. 2010. Social Capital: The Missing Link in School Reform. Stanford, CA: Stanford Social Innovation Review.
McLaughlin, M. W., and J. Talbert. 2006. Building School-based Teacher Learning Communities: Professional Strategies to Improve Student Achievement. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Pil, F. K., and C. Leana. 2009. “Applying Organizational Research to Public School Reform: The Effects of Teacher Human and Social Capital on Student Performance.” Academy of Management Journal, 52, no. 6:101-1124. publisher
Talbert, J. 2011. “Collaborative Inquiry to Expand Student Success in New York City Schools.” In Education Reform in New York City: Ambitious Change in the Nation’s Most Complex School System, edited by J. O’Day, C. S. Bitter, and L. M. Gomez. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.