Guest Column

Start Here for Improving Teaching

by Mike Schmoker

For all the current controversy surrounding issues of student achievement and accountability, we forget there is far less controversy about a shared desire on all sides to see more kids learn, to reduce the achievement gap, and to improve the quality of the complex work of teaching in all schools, whether they are affluent or not.

So what if there was, right now, a fairly straightforward, well-established way to appreciably improve both teaching quality and levels of learning? What if evidence from numerous schools, as well as a broad concurrence of the research community, points to proven structures and practices that (a) stand to make an immediate difference in achievement and (b) require reasonable amounts of time and resources?

The fact is such structures and practices are at hand—and there’s no reason to delay their implementation.

Rare Agreement

This simple, powerful structure starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential and valued student learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals and then share and create lessons to improve upon those levels.

Picture these teams of teachers implementing these new lessons, continuously assessing their results and then adjusting their lessons in light of those results. Importantly, there must be an expectation that this collaborative effort will produce ongoing improvement—and gains in achievement.

If there is anything that the research community agrees on, it is this: The right kind of continuous, structured teacher collaboration improves the quality of teaching and pays big, often immediate, dividends in student learning and professional morale in virtually any setting. Our experience with schools across the nation bears this out unequivocally.

The concurrence on this is both stunning and under-appreciated. Advocates for focused, structured teacher collaboration include Roland Barth, Emily Calhoun, Linda Darling-Hammond, Richard Elmore, Michael Fullan, Bruce Joyce, Judith Warren Little, Dan Lortie, Milbrey McLaughlin, Fred Newmann, Susan Rosenholtz, Rick Stiggins, James Stigler, Joan Talbert, Gary Wehlage, Grant Wiggins, Ronald Wolk and numerous others.

Darling-Hammond, a professor of teaching and teacher education at Stanford University, speaks for a legion of researchers when she writes that improvement is a function of “continual learning groups” pursuing “collective … explicit goals for student learning.” She rightly emphasizes that success need not hinge on a school’s luck in finding that rare administrator with charisma. It does, however, depend on collaborative “structures for success that maintain a press for ambitious teaching and academic achievement.”

Similarly, Fullan, a newly appointed education adviser to the provincial government in Ontario, writes that teachers in successful schools form professional learning communities. They work together “on a continuing basis … focused on student work (through assessment).” On the basis of their assessment results, teachers then strategically “change their instructional practice accordingly to get better results.”

Researcher Judith Warren Little’s landmark studies on this topic are definitive. But they contain an important caveat: What passes for collaboration or collegiality in schools typically lacks a focus on achievement results—on short term, formative assessment—and thus has little impact on the character and quality of teaching. Educators must not confuse mere congeniality or “collaboration lite” with the serious professional dialogue essential to school improvement

But, like Fullan and Darling-Hammond, Little found when teachers engage regularly in authentic “joint work” focused on explicit, common learning goals, their collaboration pays off richly in the form of higher quality solutions to instructional problems, increased teacher confidence, and, not surprisingly, remarkable gains in achievement.

Concerted Action

Mere collegiality won’t cut it. Even discussions about curricular issues or popular strategies can feel good but go nowhere. The right image to embrace is of a group of teachers who meet regularly to share, refine and assess the impact of lessons and strategies continuously to help increasing numbers of students learn at higher levels.

This image has yet to become the norm in most schools, despite the fact there are almost no dissenting entities on this issue, despite the contribution such joint work makes to teacher efficacy and professionalism, despite the fact it is neither costly nor time-consuming.

There is no good reason to delay this reform. It is time for a concerted press for its inclusion in state department requirements, in every pre-service and leadership training course, and every discussion among principals and teacher leaders that purports to improve teaching and learning.

Indeed, other factors affect achievement. But continuous, organized opportunities for collaboration and assessment that are part of an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement allow us to make the most of the best factors and strategies. These structures offer us our most practical and affordable opportunity to integrate, generate and refine practices that influence teaching and learning.

The stakes are high, but success could redefine public education and the education professions. It could enable us to reach unprecedented levels of quality, equity and achievement.

Mike Schmoker is an education consultant and author of Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement. He can be reached at 2734 N. Carefree Circle, Flagstaff, AZ 86004. E-mail: schmoker@futureone.com. The author acknowledges the contributions of Richard DuFour, Carl Glickman and Douglas Reeves in preparing this column.