Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Looking Beneath the Surface: Teacher Collaboration through the Lens of Grading Practices

by Daniel L. Kain - 1996

Teacher teams at a new school were observed during their first year working together. Based on these observations, plus interviews and document analysis, this report describes a "crisis" in teacher relations (a controversy about grading) and the practice of collaboration as it is revealed in this crisis. The discussion highlights the importance of teacher teams' maintaining their planned focus despite impinging school crises, informing newcomers of the history of decisions and norms, articulating clear purposes for their work together, and addressing the power of traditions in attempts to innovate. The article concludes that this collaboration is an effective means for teachers to reexamine educational practice.

Teacher teams at a new school were observed during their first year working together. Based on these observations plus interviews and document analysis, this article describes a “crisis” in teacher relations (a controversy about grading) and the practice of collaboration as it is revealed in this crisis. The discussion highlights the importance of teacher teams’ maintaining their planned focus despite impinging school crises, informing newcomers of the history of decisions and norms, articulating clear purposes for their work together, and addressing the power of traditions in attempts to innovate. The article concludes that this collaboration is an effective means for teachers to reexamine educational practices.

Teacher collaboration has been generally applauded for its potential in improving the working lives of teachers. Collaboration can reduce teacher uncertainty. Teacher teaming can reduce isolation and enhance teachers’ professional self-image; collaboration promotes collegiality and school learning. It contributes to risk-taking and diminishes the fragmentation of teachers’ experience.1 At the same time, serious questions have been raised about the authenticity of the decisions teachers make and the abuses of such decision making for political purposes, the constraints placed on teacher decision making, the conflicting role demands such decision making requires, and the potential drawbacks for the schoolwide professional community.2

One area generally presumed to be within the purview of autonomous teachers is the practice of grading. Although there is evidence of some district- and building-level grading policies, which are sometimes constructed by groups of teachers, teachers appear to maintain a sense of privacy about their own grading practices, guarding these practices with the same passion with which one might guard an unedited diary or what Thomas calls “sacred ground.”3 Teachers make assumptions and conform to implicit rules and standards, but tend not to discuss grading, even though it is a source of dissatisfaction with their work. Teachers frequently find grading a source of uncertainty, frustration, and ambiguity.4 Given this attitude about grading, this practice becomes an especially insightful vehicle for examining the collaborative relations in a school.

This article pursues the question of how teachers build collaborative relations and norms. The vehicle for this is an examination of how teachers in a school committed to collaboration from its inception established commonality in grading. If, as evidence in the literature indicates, a teacher’s grading practices constitute a private and autonomous domain, to what extent does the overt commitment to collaboration reduce this “persistence of privacy”?5



Cactus High School (like all names reported here, a pseudonym) opened its doors in September 1994 after a weekend flurry of teachers’, administrators’, and community members’ moving furniture and equipment into the first phase of a new campus. Staff members had been provided with opportunities to collaborate through several gatherings over the previous five months. In addition, because the school board had endorsed the nine principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Cactus High staff members had communicated through e-mail via CESOL (Coalition of Essential Schools On Line). The principal, Gordon, had worked the entire previous school year (in cooperation with the community) to hire the staff, finalize the details of building and organizing the school, and begin community liaison.

When the school opened, it housed approximately 220 ninth- and tenth-grade students, with the expectation that another class of about 100 students would enter each of the next two years. The eight full-time teachers were organized into two teams, called “Saguaro” and “Cholla.” In addition, three part-time professionals—a counselor, a librarian, and a special educator—served the school. Later in the year, a number of other professionals (two aides, one administrator, and an alternative education teacher) were added.


Data for this study were collected using fieldwork methods over a period of about one year.6 Data collection consisted of participant observation, interviewing, and document analysis. The researcher began by observing and participating in summer staff meetings, and research activity continued throughout the school year. The researcher participated in staff meetings and weekly team meetings, observed classes and other school activities, interviewed staff members and administrators, and analyzed school, team, and classroom documents.

Data analysis occurred throughout the study. Field notes from the researcher’s visits to the site were typed by a research assistant. The typed notes were then entered into a HyperQual (computer software) stack and coded according to predetermined and emerging categories. The analysis was presented to the school staff in draft form, and their comments and suggestions were incorporated into the final version, with contradictions or alterations supplied in the notes to this article.

Prior to the 1995–1996 school year, the staff of Cactus High engaged in a Socratic seminar focused on the present article. The Appendix features the discussion questions used or suggested by the staff in this seminar.


Clearly, in a new school any number of problem-solving situations arise, ranging from student discipline and dress codes to class schedules to parent relations to undelivered materials. The question of grading practices, then, serves as one lens through which to view the development of collaborative relations and norms in an emerging school culture. Grading practices, because they are typically considered a part of the teacher’s private professional judgment and under an individual’s control, provide an especially insightful glimpse into the attempt at Cactus High—and schools like it—to build a culture of teacher collaboration.7

The study reported here is a case study that proceeds with both description and analysis.8 Beginning with a description of a crisis point faced by the teachers, the description provides a chronological summary of the development of collaboration around this issue. Following this, a brief analysis of the collaborative practices related to grading at Cactus High highlights principles that may assist other schools attempting to develop collaborative cultures.


The Cholla team is about to begin its weekly meeting at 7:30 A.M. on a warm spring morning. Gordon, the school principal, asks where everyone is on this slow-starting day. The four teamed teachers gather in a library conference room, a glassed-in observation deck perched over the greening desert. Julia, the last to arrive, enters the room asking what should be on the day’s agenda. Even before she has sat down at the table, Julia suggests they might discuss the new alternative program at the school, and Gordon and Jon launch into a discussion of this issue.

Renee interrupts her colleagues, reminding them that they have not yet agreed on the agenda. Items offered for discussion seem fairly typical for a secondary school team: a couple of students who are having some trouble, the forms used to guide students into the school’s alternative program, a scheduling issue, and then the unusual one. Jon, the science teacher, adds his item: “We need a round table discussion on my grades.”

Jon’s tone is matter of fact as he offers his agenda item, though when the discussion later returns to this issue there is more emotion in his voice: “OK, let’s move on. Grade policy. I feel there’s some tension about my policy.” He turns to Kirk, his teammate in Literature and the Arts, and says, “You brought up something that made me feel like the bad guy in the team’s eyes and the students’ eyes. I want to get it on the table.”

The discussion that follows includes frank input and questioning from various team members. Some of their comments are listed below:





I don’t think you’re the bad guy, I just think as a team we can do something to improve motivation.

But part of me still wonders why after a trimester are there so many kids that say they’ll forget about science. I think this is maybe where we can do some team problem solving. I also feel—and this is going out on a limb—I feel like we’ve got to go back and change some things. What I hear from you and from the students is inconsistent. But the bottom line is I hear over and over, “I don’t understand.” Kids say they don’t know how to get an A. What’s the criteria?

The extremes were on this team: 10 percent to 50 percent failures [he gestures at Kirk and then Jon]. Half our grades are based on performance, so it undermines this if we pass them [the students] for other reasons. Our job is to coach kids to meet the standards. We have to show lots of examples.

One thing that bothers me is that there seems to be a lot of anger.

These sample comments, of course, cannot adequately portray the developing dialogue on grades. But what becomes apparent quite quickly through this snapshot of a team meeting is profound. First, Jon opens himself and his grading practices up for examination. Indeed, he invites it. Unlike what we might expect, he does not head off criticism of his work with a defense of his practices, though he does offer justifications as the discussion proceeds. He simply asks that the team discuss his grading. Second, we see a group of colleagues (teachers and a principal) honestly appraising teaching practices in their school. For example, Renee asks Jon if he guides his students in a questioning process rather than simply telling them to seek answers on their own; Julia shares how she makes criteria explicit in her projects. And Jon honestly responds in frustration when he feels that his practices conform to their suggestions. Third, the team frames the issue as a problem-solving opportunity for the entire team, perhaps the school, rather than a criticism of one colleague. Finally, though Coalition schools tend to focus less on grading and more on diagnosing student problems and helping them become self-assessors,9 it is apparent from this example that grading is a very real concern.

A week later, the Saguaro team holds its weekly meeting, and the issue of grades creeps onto their agenda as well. Edie, a Literature and the Arts teacher who, like Jon, joined the staff mid-year, asks that they “do grades” on their agenda. When they reach that agenda item, her teammate, Marie, asks Edie what she wanted to say about grades.




I went home [after the staff meeting the previous day] to think about it. I had a pretty high percentage of Fs after Jon.10 All the kids I gave Fs to didn’t do anything.

How did you feel about it? . . .

I felt bad. Kirk had thirty-five percent As and I had thirty-three percent F s. Standards and consistency—where are we? Am I requiring too much? One Cholla kid told me that he had read all the books and done n o writing. He said he’s getting an A. Ahh! Kids say they want Cholla for English. I still feel really stung. I feel I failed.

The discussion on this team took a distinctly different direction from the Cholla team’s discussion the previous week. Instead of focusing on Edie’s practices, the team focused on how grading was done at the school. Elizabeth, the Spanish teacher who regularly meets with the Saguaro team though her work is across teams, argued that the school did not have a clear understanding of standards: “We’ve got to be consistent about what an A means and what an F means.” Other Saguaro members raised similar points. But Edie remained puzzled about the problem at the end of the discussion, when Marie suggested this should be a whole-school rather than a team issue.

Another Saguaro member, Rob, the math teacher who was also a midyear replacement, expressed a different kind of confusion. The team members were comparing how they derived grades, noting the student confusion when 50 percent in English meant an F, while an apparent 50 percent in math (i.e., two on a four-point rubric) meant a C. Elizabeth asked Rob if he explained the criteria and how rubrics work to his students. Rob replied that when he tried, the students groaned and told him to get on with math. Elizabeth persisted: “I think it would be good to go over it with them.” Rob’s response raises some interesting questions about ownership. He said, “Well, I came in late. It was in place when I got here.”

It is more than coincidental that the three teachers primarily involved in questions about the school’s grading practices were hired well after the school year began. Jon replaced a science teacher (who had been followed by a string of substitutes) in January. Edie joined the staff as an English teacher when Mr. S. left the Cholla team to take on administrative duties in January. And Rob, like Jon, followed a string of substitutes, joining the staff as a math teacher in February. A question arises, then, about the grading practices at this school. What did the late-arriving teachers miss out on in the development of school norms? And what does this tell us about the benefits or drawbacks of teacher collaboration?


The overt beginnings of a grading “policy” for Cactus High can be traced to staff planning meetings in July before the school opened. The staff was given two weeks’ planning time, during which they wrestled with such diverse issues as planning the school organization and schedule, ordering materials, defining a curriculum, and deciding about practical matters such as how grades would be determined and reported.

Gordon led the staff in a discussion of an article about assessment practices during one of their summer planning days. The unpublished paper described an assessment program observed in a sixth-grade classroom. Though the article did not directly address practices in a school like Cactus High, Gordon explained to the teachers that “its purpose is to help us focus our thinking on the issue.” Teachers broke into two smaller groups, read the article, and generally agreed that the principles in the article were positive models. Gordon indicated they would “unpack” the reading the next day.

The reading did not come up directly during the conversation of assessment the subsequent day. Gordon asked the teachers what issue they wanted to deal with first, and Teri, a math teacher, suggested they take on the biggest issue first. Discussion focused primarily on the issue of standards and grades, though this was interwoven with discussion of a “senior institute” (an unnamed program for students who were ready to do final exhibition work, having completed the three-year cycle for the school) and an honors program. The chief issues the teachers were attempting to resolve centered on their emerging understanding of the importance of process and product in grading, especially as this relates to the “exhibitions” used as evaluative tools in Coalition schools.11

Some parameters were established early in this discussion. First, Gordon emphasized that standards had to be clear for staff, students, and parents. He indicated that the teachers needed to establish some “general understanding” now, though “real standards come when we have real work to look at.” Standards, he said, must be clearly tied to grades. Second, he pointed out that they had to make a distinction between excellent exhibition work and “work on the way to get there.” Finally, he reiterated that there was no choice about whether to grade students, only about how: “To grade or not to grade is not open for discussion.”

Teachers expressed some confusion after his remarks regarding the relationship between judging exhibitions and grading. For example, Beth, a science teacher, said she was confused about the connection between grades and credits. She had understood that exhibitions would be evaluated differently from the work students did leading up to exhibitions, but the need to give letter grades muddled this. Gordon suggested that using a rubric might alleviate this concern. Renee suggested that students could receive grades for the work leading up to exhibitions, but receive credit only when they had passed the actual exhibition. This, however, meant that grades might represent process rather than product. As Teri put it, “I understand. That still says that most of what I get as a grade depends on the process.”

In the subsequent discussion, the teachers and Gordon began to develop consensus on the relationship between process and product in grading.12 Gordon said he “had in mind” that performance should count for half a student’s grade and process “up to 50 percent.”13 While some teachers rapidly agreed with this (Kirk said those two ought to be “separate but equal”), others wanted a graduated system: At the beginning of the year, process and product would count equally in determining grades, but as the year progressed, the emphasis would shift to product (20 percent process, 80 percent product). Later, a subcommittee recommended that the school move from 50–50 at the start of the year to 20–80 by the end.

While no final policy was articulated on this issue, the discussion in July was a reference point for teachers throughout the year. However, some confusion, even for the teachers involved in the discussion, persisted. For example, the notion of a gradually shifting emphasis on process and product appears to have been forgotten. Also, various people interpreted the 50–50 relationship between process and product differently. In a discussion of grading in October, Julia (social studies) explained that she counted the “lead-in” work for a project (i.e., process issues) as 30 percent of a student’s grade. In April, Marie informed Edie that they had decided the previous summer that grades should be “no more than 50 percent process.” Also in April, Jon learned for the first time about this formula:




I made an analogy this morning that I felt like Richard the Third in Shakespeare when he is saying “My horse, my horse, a kingdom for my horse.” . . . I felt that isolated at the time. Last night in the faculty meeting Gordon actually had prepared a graphical analysis of all of our grades and presented to everybody and I again felt alone. And I felt that I was not in the same framework as far as my grading policies and what I’m looking at and my expectations as the rest of the faculty. So this morning I again brought it up with the team saying that if 50 percent of the students’ grade is a process grade I need to know that because that was not my understanding. That was not communicated to me; the first time I heard that was last week from Gordon after I had already posted my grades. My process grade was about 10 percent.

Now did he say it should be 50 percent or up to 50 percent?

He said this was our agreement. And that was an agreement prior to my being hired here. So it’s 50 percent is process and 50 percent is product.14 And I based 90 percent of my grade on product.

What is interesting in Jon’s comments is that the suggestion made in the July meeting of a target percentage for process considerations (“I had in mind . . .”) has hardened into policy by April. The notion of gradually diminishing the emphasis on process has been lost over time; the magical 50 percent has become a reference point.

Because Jon, Edie, and Rob were not present during the initial formulation of this “policy,” they were denied access to the arguments, reservations, and questions raised by teachers and the principal. They experienced only the consequences of the interpretation of this discussion. So, for example, they missed Julia’s defense of the student who might score low on process issues:

One thing is that this school is making everything count toward an end. Doing the things we like (like being on time, being considerate, getting work turned in), if they don’t do homework but get the project done, big deal! I’m thinking of exceptional kids who didn’t show up, but got the work done. It really has to do with what we like, what we are like.

Such comments challenge the emphasis on process grades as a means of enforcing cultural values rather than a focus on achievement or learning. Though the staff appeared to accept process grading (no formal decision was made), each staff member participated in debate and questioning of this. The new teachers, however, missed this valuable context, experiencing only second-hand the interpretations of that day’s work.15

They also missed the key phrase of the day in the discussion of grades: “unstintingly honest.” It was this, more than any other phrase, that characterized the discussion in July. Teachers were to be unstintingly honest with students and parents about the progress of the students toward meeting standards (though the standards were not defined). They were to be unstintingly honest with each other, a trait valued in Coalition schools.16


As the year progressed, teachers found they had to move from the hypothetical discussion of grades and standards to the practical reality of grading and establishing standards. At times, this work, too, was collaborative. For example, Beth and Sharon created a joint syllabus for their science courses. On this, they indicated that evaluation for the first trimester would be based on the following breakdown: 20 percent attendance and class participation, 40 percent “mini-assessments” (“quizzes, field journals, class notebooks, and three magazine or newspaper article summaries”), and 40 percent for the first major assessment (“a traveling flip down chart or a written report”).17 Their grade distributions for the first trimester were similar, with both teachers reporting 31 percent Ds and Fs, though Beth gave 58 percent As and Bs as opposed to Sharon’s 48 percent.

Other teachers apparently collaborated less in establishing common grade systems. Some discussion of grading practices emerged at various times. For example, during a break at a staff meeting in October, the researcher initiated a discussion with teachers about how the use of exhibitions impacted grading systems. Each teacher involved in this conversation had a slightly different perspective on the question. Marie said she used a four-point rubric to rate student work, but Kirk, the other Literature and the Arts teacher, indicated he had not yet developed such a tool—he said all student work was currently either A or B. Teri, a math teacher, also used a rubric and had devised a way to translate the four-point scale into letter grades. Julia, the teacher most experienced in Coalition issues, articulated features of an exhibition, including public performance, that she considered most important. She produced a sample assignment she was using with her students that broke down the requirements for the project and the procedures, though it did not specifically address how grades would be assigned.

What is interesting in this is that the teachers appeared to be operating quite independently in determining grading practices and standards. The question of grading was raised by the researcher, not the teachers, despite their apparent interest in the issue. It is possible that individual teachers were discussing grading practices on their own, but it was not an issue arising in staff meetings, team meetings, or documents connected with either forum. At the end of the school year, Beth said, “We were pretty much left on our own to determine our grading system.”

Other concerns of the staff may have superseded discussions of grading. Cactus High not only opened a new facility in September, but for many community members it opened a new conception of schooling. Many of the “changes” the school instituted proved to be unpalatable to portions of the community. Practices such as students’ calling their teachers by first names, wearing walkman stereos in class, and facing virtually no formal discipline policy, or teachers’ apparently ignoring textbooks and implementing new teaching techniques (as one teacher put it, “in math, everything is done with beans or rice”) caused students and parents alike to challenge the school. Marie reported one student’s comment: “Why’d you have to make it so hard? Why couldn’t it be like a real high school?” In fact, some teachers found comfort in holding to traditional grading practices simply to stem the relentless criticism of the school. Mr. S., a social studies teacher (and one of two teachers who retained the use of surnames), put it this way when asked about how exhibitions might have altered his grading system: “That [grading] hasn’t changed. And part of that is there’s the big rumor around town that there won’t be grades. I let them [community members] see it’s the same old thing.”


In this “real work,” as Gordon had called it during the summer meeting,18 did the teachers collaborate to create a common system or understanding of what grades mean? Apparently not. Although they certainly communicated about students’ performance (a frequent question in team meetings was “how is X doing in your class?”) and they did work together in communicating at midterm marking periods, that communication was a kind of reporting rather than exploring the system itself. It seems there are several factors to consider in understanding this phenomenon.

First, the contrast between real work and speculative planning may provide some insight. During the summer meetings, the teachers were invited to dream about creating a school. Despite Gordon’s frequent admonitions to think about the impact of their decisions, teachers remained, as the librarian said, “idealistic.” They were taken by surprise when the students arrived and did not conform to their expectations. As a result, the focus of teacher collaboration shifted from issues that could be handled individually (e.g., grading) to issues on which a common front was critical (e.g., the climate of the school).

Beyond the urgency of dealing with community reactions to the school, the staff faced a host of problems that had to be solved in the early development of the school. For example, the physical plant was not completed when the school opened, and as various phases of the campus opened, new difficulties in communication and supervision arose. In their adjusting to the student population (in terms of both behavior and numbers: expecting 180 students, the school initially enrolled over 220 students), the staff had to decide how best to utilize resources. Would it be better to hire one physical education instructor (all teachers were conducting “physical activities” for the students) or two teacher aides? Committed to the notion of site-based management and democratic decision making, the school would not let such an important decision fall to the principal alone. Indeed, decisions of staffing, budgeting, attending conferences, policy, and so on were regularly made by consensus of the whole staff (secretaries and aides often participated as well as the principal and teachers). This process, as several teachers commented, was unwieldy. Kirk had expressed the frustration of such decision making at the end of a taxing day during the previous summer: “Sometimes I wish things could just be handed down from on high so that I could piss and moan about it later and say I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Although he said this partially in jest, his sentiment was echoed by numerous teachers throughout the year. Mrs. T, for example, complained that reaching consensus was sometimes slow and painful. She said she wished Gordon would just decide some things. “We trust him,” she said.

In terms of time, a crucial factor in successful collaboration,19 such problem solving on the part of the staff effectively consumed what time was available. A consistent pattern at staff meetings emerged: The full agenda (generally of pressing issues) could never be addressed, and items were often moved to later meetings.20 Given this time limitation, it is not surprising that a “noncrisis” issue like developing a grading system could not find its way into the collaborative deliberations of the staff.

A third consideration in understanding the apparent lack of collaboration in creating standards and consistent grading systems relates to the focus of the team meetings. Typical team meetings, for both the Cholla and Saguaro teams, focused primarily on students. Clearly there were benefits to such a focus: Teachers knew students better, they could share concerns and successful ways of dealing with them, they juggled class lists to the benefit of their students, they streamlined the communication with parents, and so on. However, the opportunity cost of such a focus meant that there were relatively few discussions of curriculum or pedagogical issues like grading.

In the larger picture of teacher teaming, this comes as no surprise. Middle-school interdisciplinary teams, for example, have a well-documented record of focusing team meetings on students and student concerns.21 Moreover, Cactus High teachers, for the most part, understood the purpose of teaming to be to focus on students and improve relations. When asked why teams existed at Cactus High, typical teacher answers emphasized this point: “I see them as really helping us work with our students” (Renee); “I think the most express purpose is so that we know kids better” (Marie); “to know kids and get them to do more work and better work” (Julia).

Jon’s answer to the same question is insightful. Recall that he was one of several teachers to join the staff midyear, without the benefit of the summer meetings:

I guess in that sense we are trying to unify or trying to have a broader unified curriculum for the students. Something that is completely integrated. And at the same time I think that the purpose of teams is to have basically subcommittees that can make decisions more rapidly and can focus on a group of students instead of two hundred students that we have in the school. Break it down into smaller groups so that we can make decisions about them. And also the third thing I would think is to . . . to become somewhat of a family for a group of students.

The unity of the original staff members in describing the team purpose suggests deliberate articulation of a purpose.22 Jon, on the other hand, described his emerging understanding of the purpose of teaming as something he just figured out. When asked how he came to understand the purpose of teaming, Jon replied,

Again, it was never clearly stated or clearly communicated. And I think that part of the school’s expectation of me is that I would do reading—you know, Sizer’s books—and understand, come to that understanding of those terms on my own and also be aware of what the essential skills were according to the Coalition of Essential Schools. And so it was mostly independent.

Rob, another late arrival at the school, agreed that he just figured out the purpose of teaming on his own. He saw teams as a way to reduce the numbers of students for whom teachers had responsibility.


Recall that it was Jon on the Cholla team and Edie on the Saguaro team, both latecomers to the school, who initiated the discussions about grading in team meetings. The issue of grades submerged until a crisis brought it again to the surface.23

In the end, the grading issue was not resolved at Cactus High, but it disappeared quietly. The crisis associated with grade distributions at the end of the second trimester passed;24 the issue of grading faded away as other pressing problems and concerns took over. Jon and Edie appeared to know more about the expectations they were to live with as they entered the final trimester for the school year, and collaboration for developing a grading system ended. Interestingly, the inconsistencies in grading that sparked the crisis in April did not appear in the grades for the final trimester.


A number of lessons can be drawn from the experience of teachers at Cactus High School, lessons that invite exploration and discussion by other school staffs involved in building collaborative communities. Because much of the evidence for these lessons has already been discussed, the lessons will be presented as summary observations.


The summer work time the teachers spent in deliberation about their school was invaluable to them in creating a vision of what the school should be like. However, it was qualitatively different from deliberations during the school year itself. The idealism and speculative explorations encouraged by the summer format were to some extent lost during the school year. Some might argue that the teachers would have been better off had they been more grounded in reality for their summer sessions. Another perspective, however, is that during the school year, the teachers might have profited from more systematic attention to the reality they wanted to recreate rather than the realities they faced. The “real work” of teaching involves an incredible pace of decision making and crisis management, and such a pace can easily squeeze out time for reflection.25 The result? A tyranny of the urgent leads to neglect of the important.

It would be wrong to encourage teachers to neglect the urgent matters that arise. However, for collaboration to work effectively, teachers must do some tracking of the important. Perhaps one way to accomplish this is for collaborative groups to keep a running account of their dealings. This involves reflection beyond the keeping of minutes. In a calm, crisis-free moment, collaborative groups might list those issues or matters that are important to their goals and vision. Periodically, then, an inventory can be taken as a group to see what matters have been pushed aside by the urgency of the moment. Taking charge in this fashion assures that collaboration is proactive, rather than merely reacting to others.


The teachers who joined the staff after the initial experiences in collaboration were presented with particular difficulties in entering the collaborative culture. Many of the implicit norms and values of collaboration were not communicated to these teachers, who were left to “figure it out” on their own, a common practice that drains energy from organizations.26 Both Jon and Rob, for example, described their understanding of the purpose of teaming as something they had to infer from the behavior of the group. Edie made similar complaints about the grading system of the school.

While the uncertainty of someone entering an occupational community is nothing new, this takes on special significance in a collaborative culture. New teachers face not only the typical uncertainties of joining a new school (how business is done here, whom one sees for materials, etc.), but the added uncertainties of complex group dynamics and a certain ahistoricism regarding practice in the school. On the surface it would seem that the collaborative culture would be more welcoming of individuals, more “user friendly” for the newcomer. Looking beneath the surface, one can see that the newcomer must break into established groups that have had time and a shared context in which to develop. The newcomer’s experience is ahistorical in that policies and practices are communicated to the newcomer (directly or indirectly) as faits accompli, and the deliberative processes that shaped such decisions and relationships are hidden. Thus, the 50 percent weighting of process in Cactus High grades reached the newcomers as an authoritative position (which, as Edie said, took something away from the new teachers), whereas the original staff members discussed and debated this issue, making reservations clear from the start.

Schools that attempt to build collaborative cultures should take particular care to draw in newcomers. This involves more than cultural courtesies. Teams develop over time, and it is unrealistic to expect new team members to enter groups at the same stage of development as an existing team.27 Newcomers should be informed of the history of the teams they join, and as much as possible, the conflictual history. That is, new team members need to hear about the debates and struggles teams have gone through, so that some sense of the team’s development is passed along to them.

New team members can be classified as “immigrants” or “captives.”28 The former join a new group voluntarily, while the latter have no real choice in the matter, a common occurrence when a vacancy occurs on a school team. In either case, difficulties arise when immigrants and captives are not fully integrated into the group;29 the potential contributions they might make are minimized.


A third lesson from the Cactus High grading experience is that there is power in priorities. The collaborative relations of the teachers focused on different issues. Sometimes the focus appeared to be under the deliberate control of the teachers, as when they used their team meeting time to discuss ways of supporting students. Sometimes the focus was imposed. For example, the crisis in the school’s relationship with the community (discipline problems) focused staff meetings on ways of addressing these problems. Either way, an issue like grading, which was important enough to consume a good deal of summer planning time, readily slips from view when other matters take priority.

Much of the identity of a team arises from its understanding of its purpose and priorities.30 Both teams at Cactus High reached consensus on the purpose of teaming at their schools: to enhance relationships with and achievement of students. Such an understanding of purpose is both laudable and questionable. Certainly one could not argue with the intent. Parents, community members, and professional educators can readily agree that such a purpose is the essence of schooling. On the other hand, such widespread agreement also indicates the slogan-like nature of the team’s purpose. Who could possibly be against good relationships and improved achievement? But how does a team translate such a broad purpose into action? What small victories can a team achieve to move it toward success?31

In practice, this understanding of team purpose meant that teams spent most of their meeting time discussing individual students. Here the concept of “opportunity cost” comes into play. There will always be enough concerns and anecdotes related to students to fill all of a team’s meeting time. What is left out because of this focus? Discussions of curriculum. Discussions of pedagogy. Discussions of evaluation and grading. The way a team defines its purpose is of utmost importance.32 Priorities will assert their power; the question is whether the priorities established in a team continue to reflect what the team considers important. Periodic discussion of grading and evaluation practices in team meetings would also contribute to better student-teacher relations and higher student achievement, particularly as students came to see the unified understanding of these issues emerging among their teachers.

Articulating a purpose, then, is crucial for a team’s success. However, the experience of the Cactus High teams argues that special care be given to that articulation. The vagueness of a purpose such as “to know kids better” will provide little direction and lends itself to what typically dominates teacher team discussions: students. Team purposes can be understood in ways that promote specific and practical actions to make schooling better.


Though this was a new school, the tradition of grading came along with teachers as surely as the tradition of students’ razzing their peers. Such traditions are not easily altered. Too many stakeholders care too much about this tradition, as evidenced by Gordon’s comment that “to grade or not to grade is not open for discussion,” Mr. S’s concern that the community see no change in this area, and the community member’s request that the school reveal its grade distributions.

The power of such traditions demands careful, systematic attention to any changes a school might consider. The issue of grading was something that came up for discussion in the summer meetings, and teachers explored possibilities for altering a powerful tradition at deeper levels than mere technique.33 However, in the press of starting and running the school, this exploration became stymied. The Cactus High experience suggests a slow but consistent examination of those elements of tradition that teams question: slow, because the changes will face challenges and resistance; consistent, because the traditions will assert themselves if teachers do not continue their questioning.


The lessons learned from the Cactus High experience would be misrepresented if they seemed to arise from “mistakes” of the teams. At the most fundamental level, even the somewhat haphazard development of a grading “policy” highlights the power of collaboration in a secondary school. Through their collaboration, the staff members turned what is typically completely private and mysterious—grading—into a problem-solving opportunity. Through their collaboration, the staff members opened their own practices to scrutiny, offering the possibility of growth. Through their collaboration, the staff members moved toward a willingness to reexamine some of the “givens” of traditional American education in a spirit that offers the promise of productive change. The “persistence of privacy” Little speaks of was challenged in this working together.34 Such collaboration promises positive change for education.

I would like to thank Rachael Bercey for her assistance in this study. The research was funded in part by a grant from Northern Arizona University, Applied Research Program.


Questions suggested by the research subjects for discussing the paper in a Socratic seminar.








Were the new teachers denied access to the grading policy?

Why did the inconsistencies disappear in the final trimester?

Do you think the teachers’ priorities were set?

In what ways did this staff allow outsiders to determine their focus and their priorities?

Do any of the teachers—old or new—have a clear understanding of the grading policy? Is it possible?

Did avoidance of the grade issue come about because of issues or discomfort in dealing with issues?

As a parent in the community represented here, what might you learn from reading this? If you were members of a high school staff interested in building a culture of collaboration, what could you learn from this?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 4, 1996, p. 569-587
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1408, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 4:54:28 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue