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Collaboration: The missing link in reform?

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

Well, here it is, “The Missing Link in School Reform.” That’s the title at least to a very intriguing article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The sub heading to the article states “In trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaboration.”

Personally, I have known for years now that collaboration is key for schools to be successful. This is based on my own experience at my school, and it has been touted by educators like Rick DuFour and his take on Professional Learning Communities. But now we have some good empirical evidence to support this.

The authors of the study looked at more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in the New York City Public schools between the years 2005 and 2007. The authors contend that when struggling math teachers engaged in conversations with their peers, as opposed to district experts or even principals, their students’ academic success increased by 5.7 percent. One of the more fascinating findings from the study was that of 1,200 kindergarten through fifth grade teachers many reported that they did not like to teach math and did not feel particularly comfortable at it. Three in ten fifth grade teachers expressed little confidence in their preparation for teaching basic math concepts like ratios and fractions. Let’s hope these teachers sought help from their peers.

The authors framed the current debate by presenting the predominant ideology driving education reform as touting the power of the individual (“focus on improving the capabilities of the individual teacher”), embracing the wisdom of the outsider (“bring in experts—or even novices—to solve problems”), and relying on the principal as the instructional leader (“the principal is the leader of school instructional reform”)

Instead the authors contend that the reality is that there is power in the collective (“the teaching staff is engaged in school reform collectively”), that reform needs to take place within the school (“trust and meaningful communication among teachers are the basis of true reform efforts”), and the principal is the protector (“the principal supports teacher reform efforts through building external relations”).

This article is not going to make huge headlines. It doesn’t blast unions; it doesn’t criticize those rich misguided and self-serving philanthropists. And many may find the article too “touchy feely.” What this article does is make sense. Too bad.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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