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Ending Isolation: The Payoff of Teacher Teams in Successful High-Poverty Urban Schools

by Susan Moore Johnson, Stefanie K. Reinhorn & Nicole S. Simon — 2018

Background/Context: Many urban schools today look to instructional teams as a means to decrease professional isolation, promote teachers’ ongoing development, and substantially reduce well-documented variation in teachers’ effectiveness across classrooms. Recent research finds that teams can contribute to teachers’ development and increased student achievement. However, research also suggests that teams often fail and that most schools are not organized to ensure their success. Therefore, it is important to learn more about how teams function in successful schools, how teachers experience them, and what factors contribute to their success.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Data for this article were drawn from a comparative case study focusing on the human-capital practices in six successful high-poverty, high-minority schools (traditional, turnaround, restart, and charter), all located in one Massachusetts city. Each school was affected by a distinct set of state and local policies. Here, we focus on the schools’ approaches to professional learning and collaboration among teachers. Did they rely on teams, and, if so, what purposes did the teams serve, and how were they organized? How did teachers assess their experience with teams? What role did administrators play? Were there notable school-to-school differences in how these teams were organized and managed?

Research Design/Data Collection and Analysis: For this qualitative, comparative case study, we conducted semistructured interviews with 142 teachers, administrators, and other staff in six elementary and middle schools. Interview protocols encouraged participants to discuss their school’s approach to teachers’ professional learning and work with colleagues. During school visits, we also observed a wide range of day-to-day practices and collected documents describing school policies and practices. We coded our data with both emic and etic topical codes and used various matrices to analyze responses within and across the sites.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Five schools relied on teams as a central mechanism for school improvement, dedicating substantial blocks of time each week to teachers’ meetings. Teams focused on matters of content (curriculum, lesson plans, and student achievement) and the student cohort (individual progress, group behavior, and organizational culture). Teachers valued their work on teams, saying that it supported their instruction and contributed to their school’s success by creating coherence across classrooms and shared responsibility for students. Factors that supported teams included having a worthy purpose in support of the school’s mission; sufficient, regular time for meetings; engaged support by administrators; and facilitation by trained teacher-leaders.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 5, 2018, p. 1-
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22086, Date Accessed: 2/22/2018 2:08:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Moore Johnson
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    SUSAN MOORE JOHNSON is the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former high school teacher and administrator, Johnson has an ongoing research interest in the work of teachers and the reform of schools and school systems. She studies, teaches, and consults about teacher policy, organizational change, and administrative practice. She is the author or co-author of many articles and seven books about these topics, including Achieving Coherence in District Improvement (2015). Since 1998, Johnson has directed the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, where she and colleagues examine how best to recruit, support, develop, and retain a strong teaching force. In 2004, they published Finders and Keepers: How to Help New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools. Additional articles reporting findings from the current study and others can be found at ⟨www.ProjectNGT.gse.harvard.edu⟩.
  • Stefanie Reinhorn
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    STEFANIE REINHORN is an educational consultant working with schools and districts on instructional improvement. She is a faculty co-chair for the Instructional Rounds Institute at Harvard Graduate School of Education and teaches in the Teacher Leadership Graduate Program at Brandeis University. Reinhorn earned her doctorate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she continues as a research affiliate with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. Her research focuses on leadership practices, teacher evaluation, and teachers’ working conditions in urban schools. She is a co-author of articles published by Teachers College Record, Educational Administration Quarterly, and American Journal of Education and Educational Leadership. Reinhorn was formerly an elementary-school teacher, a middle-school math teacher, and an instructional coach in urban, suburban, and international schools.
  • Nicole Simon
    John Jay College of Criminal Justice
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE SIMON is Director of Strategic Initiatives at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is responsible for developing pathways from high schools and community colleges into John Jay and out into careers. Simon earned her doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she remains a research affiliate with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She served as a Harvard Presidential Public Service Fellow at Boston Public Schools and as a Radcliffe/Rappaport Policy Fellow at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Simon began her career at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a Brooklyn public school. She is the author of several book chapters and co-author of articles published by Teachers College Record and Educational Leadership.
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