Collegial collaboration is hard to achieve

As pressure mounts to improve student performance, professors from time to time weigh in with proposals that are supported by research (“How better teachers are made,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16).  The latest example is Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and emeritus professor at Stanford.

Darling-Hammond says that instruction is improved when teachers are “supported with good ideas.”  The key, she urges, is collegial collaboration.  I agree, but she needs a reality check because the lockstep schedule that characterizes public schools in this country makes her suggestion almost impossible.

Teachers in pre-K-12 don’t have the luxury that professors enjoy.  Their day barely allows them time to use the restroom, let alone sit down with their colleagues to discuss instructional strategies.  Teachers are simply too exhausted.  I challenge university professors to teach for a month in a public school.  They’ll quickly find out what I mean.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

6 Replies to “Collegial collaboration is hard to achieve”

  1. How about a pilot program in which the school system provides a “supervisor teacher” over perhaps four teachers?

    The supervisor teacher would function in the same way that supervisors do in other organizations that employ a large number of professional employees. The supervisor teacher would spend most of his/her day in the classroom with one of the subordinate teachers — to some extent teaching or helping but the subordinate teacher would be the main teacher. The supervisor teacher would also sometimes be the “substitute” when a subordinate teacher was absent.

    The supervisor teacher would be held responsible for the work of the subordinate teachers. The supervisor teacher would therefore have a strong incentive to assist the subordinate teachers in improving their teaching. The supervisor teacher would also generate the annual eval for the subordinate teachers and would be responsible for imposing discipline on the subordinate teachers if the subordinate teachers screwed up (that is, violated established rules/requirements — like showing up late for class or doing personal stuff during class time — as opposed to just not teaching effectively).

    As a practical matter, the supervisor teacher is a much better vehicle than teacher-teacher collaboration for improving a teacher’s techniques — at least that’s how it works in law firms, training hospitals, engineering firms, accounting firms, and consulting firms. Speaking from my personal — albeit anecdotal — experience as a junior attorney and then as a supervising attorney, I myself learned much more about what works and what doesn’t work as an attorney immediately after I started supervising other attorneys. Seeing other professionals do their work and having to articulate to the observed professional what is not effective in the work forces the supervising professional to think about why something is effective as well as why something else is not effective. Also, presumably/hopefully the teachers selected to be the supervisor teachers would themselves have track records of being very effective/experienced teachers so it’s likely they were already doing many things effectively but perhaps had not realized why what they were doing was effective.

    Teacher-teacher collaboration is fine. But, teachers can rarely actually observe another teacher teaching + implementing a system that enables Teacher A to leave his/her class for a day or two to observe Teacher B requires someone else covering Teacher B’s class + if Teacher A is an ineffective teacher, Teacher A’s advice to Teacher B might be counterproductive + the Teacher A – Teacher B collaboration model would not provide the reliable/fair eval or discipline-for-screw-up that the supervisor-teacher model provides and that is critical missing piece of any reliable/fair eval system for teachers.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: An excellent idea! The main obstacle is how to choose the supervisor teacher. Would the person be chosen by the principal, teachers in the department or by the university? What would the criteria be? If the person comes from outside the school, how knowledgeable would he/she be about the school’s unique culture? What works in one school would not necessarily work in another. For example, Jaime Escalante was superb at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. But when he transferred to a high school in Sacramento, he could not duplicate his success. He was the same teacher, but the students and the culture were different.

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    1. I’d say the main obstacle to implementing a supervisor-teacher system is the cost — the system would increase the number of teachers by 25%. Montgomery County, MD (DC suburb) uses a supervisor-teacher system but only for a small percentage of rank-and-file teachers — the very inexperienced teachers and teachers designated by the principal as potentially poorly-performing + the supervisor-teacher works with the supervisor teacher for only a month or two.

      A second major obstacle would be resistance from rank-and-file teachers who — like most folk — would rather not have anyone looking over their shoulder watching as they work. Hopefully, the more confident and/or experienced teachers would realize that, in the long run, rank-and-file teachers will have a better professional life and fairer evals if there is a first-line supervisor who has hands-on knowledge of the difficulties they face and a personal interest in having them be the best teachers they can be — as opposed to the current system, where each teacher lives a professional life largely devoid of adult interaction and evals written by a principal/asst principal who has little knowledge of the difficulties they face and who has, in effect, total control over their job. (An additional advantage of the supervisor-teacher system is that it provides a second important voice in any discussions re the teacher’s job prospects — rather than just a principal controlling the teacher’s job prospects, there would be a supervisor-teacher and a principal so the likelihood of irrationality or favoritism in managerial decision-making would be significantly reduced.

      Re selecting the supervisor-teacher: I’d suggest the selections be made by a committee of principals/central administrators with perhaps a rule that Principal X would be excluded from the committee decision-making vote when a teacher from X’s school was being considered. Once the system was up and running, the supervisor-teacher evals of the rank-and-file teachers would hopefully play an important role in selecting future supervisor-teachers — at least, that’s how I believe it works in most professional offices like law firms.

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  3. Labor Lawyer: I’d be very interested in knowing if the Montgomery County supervisor-teacher has worked out as intended. If it is as successful as it certainly seems it would be, perhaps other districts would be persuaded to follow suit regardless of the cost.

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    1. The Montgomery County system is called “PAR”.

      Here’s a link to official info on the MCPS website:

      https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/development/resources/projover/docs/PARteacher.pdf

      I’ve read discussions re PAR in the Washington Post — mostly in the “comments” section, since the WaPo rarely says good things about local govts (other than the DC school reforms implemented by Michelle Rhee — a WaPo darling). My description of PAR below is based on what I’ve read in the WaPo comments rather than on the official info on the MCPS website.

      My impression is that PAR started about 12 years ago. MCPS and the union both like it, although I don’t know if it’s part of the CB agreement. During its first 10 years, PAR triggered discharge or resignation-in-lieu-of-discharge of over 500 teachers. There were few challenges to those discharges. The union (and the teachers generally) think PAR is fair — and much fairer than allowing the principal to decide on his/her own who gets discharged. Not sure to what extent PAR’s goal is to improve poorly-performing teachers as opposed to discharging poorly-performing teachers — its structure would allow it to achieve both goals.

      As I understand PAR, this is how PAR works: Central Admin, with some input from the union, selects a group of experienced high-performing teachers (called Consulting Teachers or TCs). A CT is assigned to supervise a teacher. The supervised teacher is either a very inexperienced teacher or a teacher whom the principal has identified as possibly poorly-performing. The CT works closely with the teacher for several weeks — observing the teacher, offering suggestions, and perhaps teaching the supervised teacher’s classes him/herself as a model. The CT writes a report recommending no action, continued CT review, or discharge. The CT’s recommendation goes to a panel composed of principals and other CTs. The panel makes a recommendation to the superintendent who usually follows the recommendation. The selection of the CT to be assigned to a particular teacher is done by Central Admin; the teacher’s principal has no input into the selection of the CT. Likewise, the teacher’s principal does not sit on the principal-CT panel that reviews the CT’s report and makes a recommendation to the superintendent. I think, but am not sure, that the CTs themselves are organizationally within Central Admin rather under the supervision of a principal + that the CTs themselves do not have regular class assignments — that is, they work only as CTs + that CTs rotate out of CT status and back into regular teaching at some point.

      Seems to me that PAR, or something similar to it, is the best vehicle for improving and/or discharging poorly-performing teachers. PAR largely insulates a teacher from a hostile/irrational/insecure/incompetent principal + provides the equivalent of a first-line supervisor teacher who will have subject-matter expertise + teaching experience + an adequate opportunity to learn about the specific challenges a teacher is facing (i.e., too many “problem” students, too many different preps, assignment at the edge of the teacher’s expertise) + an adequate opportunity to observe how well the teacher is performing over an extended period of time + provides for meaningful involvement by several people (the original principal, the CT, and the principal-CT committee) in discharge decisions.

      A major limitation/disadvantage of PAR is that it does not address the situation where a principal likes a poorly-performing teacher and, for personal reasons, fails to identify the poorly-performing teacher for PAR review. Not sure to what extent, if any, parents, fellow teachers, or the union can get a teacher reviewed by PAR w/o the principal requesting PAR review.

      A second disadvantage is that only a small percentage of teachers are subject to PAR review — therefore, PAR does not provide any professional improvement for the overwhelming majority of teachers (other than during their first year teaching).

      On the other hand, PAR, by limiting its application to only a small percentage of teachers and by limiting the time a CT works with a teacher to a few weeks, PAR allows the school system to provide an effective first-line supervisor to the teachers most likely to need first-line supervision while minimizing the additional cost of providing the supervisor teachers.

      I’m surprised that PAR has not received more area-wide and nation-wide publicity. Think the NY Times had an article about it a few years back, but otherwise it’s been largely ignored as the school reform discussion has instead focused on using student test scores to identify/discharge allegedly poorly-performing teachers. Of course, the student-test-scores approach is cheaper for the school system and has the advantage of seeming to be “objective”.

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  4. Labor Lawyer: Many thanks for this most helpful information. I also wonder why it has not been tried in other districts. Consulting teachers can be exactly what struggling teachers, whether new or veterans, need. They’re certainly better than what exists in most schools today, where an administrator drops by to observe a teacher. No system is perfect, but PAR seems to be as good as possible.

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