In his Book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The organizations that are the most successful are the ones where the system is the star. The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way around”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in school organizations that build social capital through teacher collaboration in the forms of data teams or professional learning communities. Data teams and professional learning communities (PLC’s) are common terms used interchangeably in our area, but some districts also use terms like instructional improvement teams or teacher learning teams. All of these terms describe a collaborative process that involves teachers in professional learning and instructional decision-making.
What separates schools that have continued to make consistent achievement gains in recent years from those that have plateaued or declined? According to recent research out of the University of Pittsburgh by Dr. Carrie Leana et al, the difference is in no small part the extent to which schools are deliberately facilitating strong teacher relationships as they build professional development plans. Instead of focusing purely on human capital by relying on individual teachers to “get smarter” through receiving more professional development around some new set of strategies, they structure professional development time and protocols in a way that also lets the system be the star. They recognize that teacher relationships are an asset to professional learning. They still use professional development to build individual human capital, but they also recognize the power embedded in teacher relationships that develop during collaborative problem solving.
Ten years after Iowa’s state-wide implementation of Reading First and the Iowa Professional Development Model, too many schools and school districts in Iowa continue to struggle to meet rising proficiency standards in reading and math. Granted, in recent years, overall math and reading proficiency have improved considerably across the state and that can be attributed to Iowa’s professional development model and its focus on implementation of quality instructional strategies. The problem is that, when it comes to gains in achievement, the low fruit is gone and not only are the scores in many systems stagnating, they are actually going down in some cases. Why is that?
Relying on the talents of individual teachers to make organizations successful is a time-honored paradigm in education. It has driven professional development models for decades and has fueled a reform movement that places a very high priority on holding individual teachers accountable for individual student growth. Research is clear that the quality of the classroom teacher is a key variable in impacting student achievement. Certainly student characteristic variables correlate highly to achievement as well (poverty, language acquisition etc), but of all the variables impacting student achievement, the only one of significant effect size that is under the direct influence of educators and education systems is the quantity and quality of academically engaged time and that’s teaching. We can’t fix poverty, but we can increase our capacity to effectively educate kids who live in poverty. This isn’t news to anyone, I realize, and I think all sides of the current reform argument acknowledge that there is no substitute for great teaching. The question is what does it take to bring great teaching to scale across a school or school system?
For several years now we have seen school improvement models that basically go like this: 1) Bring in an outside model or expert. Whether it be a private vendor with a new textbook series or a new instructional model or methodology with its origins in a university, the Department of Education or the AEA, schools have consistently looked to new programs or models to impact achievement. Let me be very clear here. None of these things is bad. Programs and models are vitally important when it comes to articulating an organization’s definition of quality and giving teachers a common framework within which to work. The next step is usually 2) Use walk through observations and student assessments to assure individual accountability. Once teachers are trained in the next new thing, it has become the primary goal of leadership to find out “who is implementing?”. Administrators, often with teacher leaders and consultants, conduct walk throughs to observe for implementation and determine needs for future professional development. While individual teachers are observed, students are assessed (often 3 times per year) to determine which students are making adequate progress. Again, none of this is bad. It is important to frequently monitor student progress and it is equally important to see what types of teaching behaviors are producing significant amounts of growth in the classroom. Finally, we get to 3) Identify lower performing teachers and support accordingly. This can take the form of more or repeated professional development for everyone or identifying teachers who may need intensive assistance. Again, none of this is necessarily bad, even though too much of this “jump higher/try harder” approach can be damaging to a system’s culture over time.
What’s missing in the model above is any deliberate effort to build social capital. All efforts in this type of system focus on the individual. Good professional development can indeed make teachers better, but there is little evidence that focusing purely on new learning and measuring implementation in isolated classrooms will result in significant student gains. On the contrary, when professional development is at least in part decentralized and placed more frequently in the hands of teachers working as a learning community, the density of the teacher relationships and the overall skill level of the group increases at a rate much faster than when learning is focused on the individual teacher alone. The research shows that this collaborative model benefits the skill level of all teachers, but it particularly benefits that of the new or marginally effective teacher. The research also shows that, particularly when dealing with profound student characteristics like high poverty, a conscious effort must be made to develop both individual human capital and collective social capital in order to overcome such at-risk student characteristics. Teachers need to frequently interact around problem solving or decision-making protocols before they can truly grow in their capacity to make good teaching decisions. When all instructional decisions are made centrally and teachers are evaluated purely on how well the decisions of others get implemented at the classroom level, they may comply with the expectation, but they will not take ownership of the result. This is sometimes called “malicious compliance”. In the past I called this the “tell me what you want me to do” model and it not only fails to build social capital around the teaching profession, it discourages teacher ownership of student results.
So what does it take to bring great teaching to scale? It takes schools working to build both human and social capital. It means giving teachers the tools and protocols they need to work together effectively and then giving them the time to practice those skills. It means trusting teachers more to identify and solve instructional problems. It means using quality screening assessments in order to have the early warning system necessary to initiate the work. Iowa’s new focus on Response to Intervention and teacher leadership development are perfectly suited to create the educational context in which to make this transition. So, as you participate in or plan your professional development during the coming year, ask yourself, “How can I take advantage of teacher expertise and horizontal relationships as I wade into my new learning?” We hear a lot in Iowa about the “right” or “best” method for teaching all kids X, Y or Z. We have no shortage of vendors or gurus with the answer to our achievement problems. Here’s what the research shows, though. How you set up the adult learning system and whether or not you utilize teacher-to-teacher relationships to build social capital in that system will have a greater impact on student learning than which expert or model you ultimately choose to follow.