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 teachersí ongoing development, and substantially reduce well-documented variation in teachersí effectiveness across classrooms. Recent research finds that teams can contribute to teachersí 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 schoolsí 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 schoolís approach to teachersí 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 teachersí 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 schoolís success by creating coherence across classrooms and shared responsibility for students. Factors that supported teams included having a worthy purpose in support of the schoolís mission; sufficient, regular time for meetings; engaged support by administrators; and facilitation by trained teacher-leaders.
Many urban schools today look to instructional teams for teachers as a central component of their improvement strategy. Teams are intended to decrease professional isolation, promote teachers ongoing development, and substantially reduce well-documented variation in teachers effectiveness across classrooms (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005; Rockoff, 2004). As they collaborate, teachers with different skills, areas of expertise, and levels of experience may find that teams not only support them in curriculum development, lesson planning, and pedagogy, while also offering professional relationships that sustain them and improve the instructional capacity and professional culture of their schools (Y. L. Goddard, Neumerski, Goddard, Salloum, & Berebitsky, 2010; Newmann, King, & Youngs, 2000).
Despite such promise and concerted efforts by many to create teams, most schools are not currently organized to ensure that teachers can collaborate regularly and intensively. Teachers experience many competing demands for their scarce nonteaching time, and academic schedules often fail to align their free time with that of their colleagues who teach the same students, grade level, or subject. Also, past research has suggested that teachers may resist expectations for the interdependence that serious collaboration calls for because it runs counter to professional norms of autonomy and privacy, which have long defined teachers work (Huberman, 1993; Little, 1990; Lortie, 1975). As a result, research has indicated that when teachers do participate on teams, they often tend to protect their time and the core of their work from interference (Neil & Johnston, 2005; Troen & Boles, 2012). Although they may discuss curricular options or suggest promising techniques during meetings, many remain reluctant to relinquish their instructional autonomy. When they return to their classrooms, they are likely to teach much as they have in the past.
However, the prominence of teacher teams is rapidly growing and evolving in many urban schools. In a recent study of teachers experiences in six high-poverty schools of one urban district (Charner-Laird et al., 2017), all teachers interviewed reported having time allocated weekly for team meetings. Rondfelt, Farmer, McQueen, and Grissom (2015), who surveyed over 9,000 teachers in Miami-Dade County, reported that 84% were part of a team or group of colleagues that works together. Given such high levels of teachers participation on teams, it is important to know more about how teams function and how teachers view their experience in them.
This study focuses on teachers experiences collaborating with colleagues in six elementary and middle schools (traditional, turnaround, restart, and charter schools), all located in one large Massachusetts city. Each school served large proportions of students from high-poverty, high-minority communities. Notably, each had demonstrated success with its students by achieving the highest performance rating in the states accountability system. Initially, we sought to learn whether and how teachers collaborated. When we discovered that teams were central to the improvement efforts of five of the six schools in our study, we focused on learning from teachers and administrators about how and how well those teams worked. We hoped that we might identify effective practices used by these successful schools, which then could inform the work of others.
We were surprised to see how similarly teams functioned across these five schools. Teams had two areas of focus. The first, academic content, included curriculum development, lesson planning, and ongoing review of data about students learning and achievement. The second area of focus, the student cohort, focused on individual students well-being and progress, the cohorts behavior and compliance with rules, and the organizational culture that students in the cohort experienced. Teachers and administrators reported that these teams effectively addressed both individual teachers instructional needs and their schools organizational needs for improvement. In the current context of high-stakes accountability, their accounts offer both broad confirmation of the potential of teams to support teachers in urban schools and specific evidence about the features of teams that teachers and administrators said contributed to their success.
In what follows, we first review the research context of this study, including evidence about collaboration among teachers and its benefits for students, the emergence of teams as a response to accountability policies, and recent studies of teachers collaboration and teams as well as the factors that affect their development in education and other sectors. After describing our research methods, we introduce the schools we studied. We then present our findings, explaining how teams were organized, what they focused on, and how teachers and administrators assessed their effectiveness. In doing so, we note important school-to-school differences. After discussing the factors that we found contribute to a schools effective support for teams, we conclude by discussing our findings and considering their implications for practice, policy, and research.
Evidence about teachers attitudes toward collaboration has long been mixed. National surveys conducted annually for 55 years by the National Education Association document clearly that teachers depend on their colleagues and value working with them (Drury & Baer, 2011). Historically, however, such collaboration among teachers was largely informal, and administrators efforts to establish common practices and continuity across classrooms often were unsuccessful, in part due to teachers isolation in the egg-crate school (Lortie, 1975). In 1990, Little observed, Schoolteaching has endured largely as an assemblage of entrepreneurial individuals whose autonomy is grounded in norms of privacy and noninterference and is sustained by the very organization of teaching work (p. 50). This legacy strongly suggests that simply assigning teachers to work together during common planning time provides no assurance that practice will change, either in the classroom or across the school. Teams are no sure-fire mechanism for teachers engagement with school improvement.
GROWING RELIANCE ON TEACHER TEAMS
Nonetheless, since 2000, teacher teamsalso called professional learning communitieshave rapidly emerged as a means to establish and manage collaboration among teachers, especially in urban schools. Some analysts have suggested that state and federal accountability policies have accelerated this development (ODay, 2002), although others have cautioned that the demands of accountability may discourage, rather than promote, collaboration (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009). Despite teachers longstanding concerns about protecting their time and maintaining their professional autonomy, teachers often see potential benefits of such teams (Charner-Laird et al., 2017). Although past research makes it clear that teams may encounter difficulties, we are only beginning to learn how effective teacher teams workwhat they focus on, who facilitates them, how principals interact with themand what factors contribute to their success.
TEACHERS' COLLABORATION AND THEIR STUDENTS' LEARNING
Meanwhile, evidence grows that ongoing collaboration among teachers benefits not only them, but also their students. Studies of school improvement and effective schools over three decades repeatedly reported strong correlations between reported or observed levels of collaboration among teachers and their students achievement (see, e.g., Gallimore, Ermeling, Saunders, & Goldenberg, 2009; Y. L. Goddard, R. D. Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007; Louis, Marks, & Kruse, 1996; Newmann & Wehlage, 1995; and Rosenholtz, 1989). In a very influential large-scale analysis of statewide data from North Carolina, Jackson and Bruegmann (2009) found that, when a more effective teacher (based on her students standardized test scores) joins a schools grade level, students in all classes of that grade make larger achievement gains in English language arts and mathematics, both initially and over time. The authors estimate that 20% of an individual teachers value-added score is explained by the contribution made by his or her grade-level colleagues. Jackson and Bruegmann called these widespread positive effects peer-induced learning (p. 87), but they did not explain the mechanism that generates such learning.
In a series of studies, Goddard and his colleagues have used teachers reports of self-efficacy and collective efficacy, which Bandura (1993) defined as the performance capability of a social system as a whole (p. 469), to explore whether and how collaboration among teachers benefits students. These researchers found that, after accounting for the effects of student gender, race, socioeconomic status, and prior academic success, teacher collaboration is positively related to school-level differences in student achievement in mathematics and reading (Y. L. Goddard, R. D. Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007). Again, however, these studies do not explain what teachers do when they collaborate or how their interaction might improve practice.
A number of studies highlight the importance of school leaders in teachers collaboration. For example, R. D. Goddard, Y. L. Goddard, Kim, and Miller (2015) used teachers reports of their principals approaches to leadership to test the relationship among instructional leadership, teacher collaboration for instructional improvement, collective efficacy beliefs, and differences among schools in students fourth-grade mathematics and reading scores. They found that the degree to which teachers collaborated to improve instruction was strongly predicted by principals instructional leadership. Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton (2010) analyzed extensive data about school practices and student achievement in Chicago and found that student performance improves when teachers work together on curriculum, instruction, and problems of practice within a school context that is grounded in strong norms of trust, respect, and continuous improvement. They concluded that school leadership is an essential support in promoting and sustaining such collaboration. Together, these studies provide considerable evidence that collaboration among teachers can increase students learning, that the benefits of collaboration extend beyond an individual teachers classroom, and that principals are key agents in promoting and supporting that process.
INVESTIGATING WHAT WORKS
Ronfeldt et al.s (2015) recent large-scale survey study of Miami-Dade County Public School teachers provided additional information about how teachers in those schools collaborate. Nearly 90% of the surveyed teachers who were participating on teams reported finding them helpful (39%) to very helpful (49%) (p. 493). The survey asked teachers to assess various team activities based on two factors: how extensively they experienced them and how useful they found them. The authors then judged that the activities that teachers reported were both extensive and helpful in creating better quality collaboration. Notably, they found that teachers who experienced better-quality collaboration had higher student achievement in both math and literacy.
Based on the literature, Ronfeldt et al. (2015) considered three topics about which teachers might collaborate on teams: (a) collaboration about instructional strategies and curriculum (including coordinating curriculum across classes, developing pedagogical materials, and developing aligned materials); (b) collaboration about assessment (including reviewing state test results and formative assessments); and (c) collaboration about students (including needs of individual students; reviewing classroom work, and addressing student discipline and classroom management). Teachers reported much more extensive levels of collaboration about instruction and assessment than about their students. Of all the activities listed, teachers reported that they found developing instructional strategies to be the most helpful focus of their teams work. In an intriguing finding, teachers reported that, although their teams focused extensively on the results of standardized tests and formative assessments, they assessed this activity to be far less helpful than others, even though it was more often predictive of test score gains [in mathematics] than collaboration in other instructional areas (p. 507). Also, the overall collaborative quality of the school proved to be important in predicting an individual teachers achievement gains, whether or not that teacher participated in high-quality collaboration, suggesting, as Jackson and Bruegmanns (2009) findings did, that all teachers and their students benefit from working in a collaborative environment.
In 201011, Charner-Laird et al. (2017) investigated how teachers worked with colleagues in six elementary and secondary schools serving high-poverty, high-minority communities in one district where accountability pressures were intense. The schools had achieved different levels of success on the states assessment. Notably, teachers in all schools spent at least one block of time each week working with colleagues on an instructional team. Based on other studies of collaboration, these researchers had expected teachers to evaluate their team largely by whether it supported their instructional needs. However, interviews revealed that teachers assessed their team with two criteria in mind: (a) Does my team help me to teach better? (b) Does it advance our efforts to improve the school? Distinct school-to-school patterns of either favorable or unfavorable responses to their teams emerged. Although virtually all teachers reported believing that teams had great potential to improve instruction at their school, those in only three schools judged their teams favorably. Most teachers in the other three schools said their teams were ineffective because their principal either did not establish a meaningful purpose for teamwork, failed to support teachers who took risks to improve their practice, or micromanaged what teachers did during team time.
In the three schools where teachers assessed teams favorably, principals frequently observed or participated in team meetings, and teachers said they appreciated their involvement. Edmondson (2012), who has studied teams in other sectors, such as health care, viewed the manager as a teams crucial partner (p. 102). In the teams we studied, the principals encouraged teachers to focus on their own learning as they sought to improve performance together.
Together, these studies suggest not only that teams are increasingly common in urban school districts today, but also that teachers are more likely than in the past to engage seriously with them. Moreover, evidence is building that sustained, effective collaboration among teachers leads to more learning for students. Teams within a school may vary in quality, but school-to-school differences appear to be more distinctive. Teachers endorsement of teams depends on specific conditions that support teamwork, many of which appear to depend on the principals approach to leadership and management. These include providing regularly scheduled time for meetings, defining a worthwhile purpose for the teams work, granting teachers sufficient agency in their shared efforts, and ensuring that teachers can count on what Edmondson (2012) called a psychologically safe environment, where members can examine their practice openly and experiment with ways to improve it without risk. We still are only beginning to learn about the relative benefitsboth for teachers and studentsof having teacher teams focus their limited time and efforts on curriculum and instruction, student assessment data, and/or students experiences in school.
Data for this analysis are drawn from a larger study in which we broadly examined the human-capital practices of six successful high-poverty urban schools, all located in a single large Massachusetts city. Here we focus on the schools approaches to collaboration among teachers. We address the following research questions:
1. Do these six successful schools rely on teams to develop teachers practice and increase the schools instructional capacity and success? If so, what purposes do the teams serve, and how are they organized?
2. How do teachers assess their experience with teams in their school? What role do administrators play in teachers judgments about the value of teams?
3. Are there notable school-to-school differences in how these teams are organized and managed? If so, what are they and what accounts for them?
For this exploratory study, we sought a sample of schools that successfully serve high-minority, high-poverty student populations, all within a single city. We considered only schools in which at least 70% of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. We used the states accountability ratings as a proxy for school success. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) rates every school on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 designating the highest performing schools, largely based on results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), administered annually to all students in district and state charter schools. The states formula accounts for growth in student performance on the MCAS and the schools progress in narrowing proficiency gaps among subgroups of students. Although we recognize that this definition of success is limited because it relies primarily on standardized test scores, we used it because it was the best proxy available for identifying schools that have a positive impact on students learning.
We considered only elementary and middle schools, in order to permit meaningful cross-case comparisons. However, because we wanted to investigate different approaches to attracting, developing, and retaining teachers, we considered various types of schools that served low-income students in Walker Citytraditional district, district turnaround, restart, and state charter schools. Although Walker City and the Walker City School District (WCSD) share the same geographical boundaries, only some schools within the city are responsible to WCSD, whereas others report directly to the states DESE. To achieve variation in the sample schools missions, policies, and human-resource practices, we reviewed available reports and websites and consulted our professional networks.
Based on our analysis of documents and advice, we drew up a proposed sample of six elementary and middle schools. To recruit schools, we contacted school officials, explaining our study and requesting their participation. All agreed to participate. (For descriptive statistics for sample schools, see Table 1.) The purposive nature of our sample allowed us to conduct an informative exploratory study of these schools. However, because the sample is small and was deliberately chosen, our findings are not generalizable.
Table 1. Selected Characteristics of Six Sample Schools
Note. Enrollment numbers and percentages are approximated for confidentiality purposes.
Between March and June 2014, we conducted semistructured interviews with 142 teachers, administrators, and other staff in the six schools. Interviews lasted approximately 90 minutes with administrators and 45 minutes with teachers. At most schools, all members of the research team attended interviews with the principal and with the directors of the charter-management organizations (CMOs) that managed two schools. In addition, all three researchers interviewed some teachers at each school, which facilitated cross-site comparisons, improved inter-rater reliability in coding data, and ensured that each researcher had informally observed elements of every schools structures, practices, and culture.
We also purposively constructed our interview sample at each school, recruiting a wide range of teachers, varying in demographics, teaching experience, preparation, and teaching assignment. We solicited teachers participation by email, through flyers placed in their mailboxes, and by responding to the recommendations of other teachers and administrators. In addition, we interviewed key staff members (e.g., curriculum coaches, program heads, and family coordinators) when it became apparent that their work and views might inform our understanding of teachers experiences. We granted participants assurances of confidentiality.
In each school, we interviewed between 31% and 56% of the teachers, depending on the schools size, its complexity, and the practices used. (For descriptive statistics about the interviewees, see Tables A1 and A2 in Appendix A). We used semistructured protocols (Appendix B) to guide our interviews and elicit comparable data across sites and across interviewers (Maxwell, 2012). Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim.
The interview protocols directly relevant to this analysis include questions asking about their schools approach to teachers professional learning, including their work with colleagues. We asked whether teachers participated in teams and, if so, what the team focused on, how it functioned, and whether they found their team worthwhile. In asking teachers to describe what it was like to work in the school, we encouraged them to describe the schools professional culture from their point of view. Responses to other questions often provided additional context and further elaboration of participants views about teachers instructional teams. Because our interviews addressed a range of related topics, we could learn whether and how the teachers work with their colleagues related to other activities. In our school visits, we also observed a wide range of day-to-day practices and looked for evidence about the schools organizational culture.
Although interviews were the main source of data for this study, we also gathered and analyzed many documents describing school policies and programs related to recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers, such as teacher handbooks, school policies, schedules, meeting agendas, lesson-planning templates, and formats for analyzing student assessments.
After each interview, we used a common template to summarize the participants responses about a standard set of themes. These included personal background, school overview, school culture, recruitment and hiring, induction, professional development, curriculum, supervision, evaluation and dismissal, student supports, pay and benefits, retention, and teacher voice. We also maintained a confidential chart that included personal and professional information about each participant, including age, years of experience teaching, years at the school, and instructional assignment. (For a list of these descriptors, see Appendix C.) We then used these analytic summaries to identify similarities and differences within and across schools as well as emerging themes in our study.
We subsequently developed a list of thematic codes to be used in labeling segments of our interview data for close analysis. These included etic codes, drawn from the research literature, and emic codes that emerged as we analyzed our thematic summaries. For example, two etic codes that related directly to the topic of teacher collaboration were PROFCULTUREthe norms of being a teacher or administrator in this school and COLLEAGUEScommentary on the teachers colleagues and their characteristics: what I think about the people I work with. We then supplemented these etic codes with a small number of emic codes that emerged from our initial analysis and practice coding (Miles & Huberman, 1994). For example, we created an emic code, DEMANDSteachers professional responsibilities and expectations, such as work hours, and teachers views of those demands. Another, INFLUENCETEACHteachers opportunities as brokers of influence, including committees where they can voice their concernssupplemented the etic code ROLESTEACHformal roles and responsibilities for career advancement. We reviewed a small subset of the transcripts, individually and together, in order to refine our definitions and calibrate our use of the codes. We then used the software Dedoose to code all segments of each interview. Having coded the data, we could then locate and review data across interviews about one or several topics. (For a list of codes, see Appendix C.)
Based on our coded interviews, we created data-analytic matrices (Miles & Huberman, 1994) to consider components of our research questions. We analyzed the data for each school separately, completing a number of data-analytic matrices, and eventually creating more extensive cross-site analyses (Miles & Huberman, 1994). For example, because we wanted to understand the role that administrators play in teacher teams, we considered and compared teachers and administrators responses coded FORMALCOLLABformal work groups, organized by the schooland ADMINTEACHinteractions between administrators and teachers. Dedoose allowed us to simultaneously sort data by code, school, and participants characteristics. Based on these analytic matrices, we began to formulate emerging findings, which we then tested against our coded data for accuracy and completeness.
We addressed risks to validity by returning to the data to review our coding and emerging findings, as well as seeking rival explanations and disconfirming data (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We also conducted member checks by sharing our initial findings with principals from all schools and by providing all participants with online links to our working papers. In each case, we invited participants responses.
THE SAMPLE OF SCHOOLS
When we collected data in 2014, our sample of six high-poverty schools included three district and three charter schools. This seemingly balanced and straightforward count masks the schools complicated and consequential histories. Two of the three district schools had recently emerged from turnaround status, and one of the three charter schools had been a persistently underperforming district school that the state designated for restart. Rapid changes in status, resources, and school-based authority reveal the substantial impact of policies intended to equalize learning opportunities for students who live in high-poverty, high-minority communities. By 2014, all six schools had achieved Level 1 in the states accountability system.
Dickinson Elementary (PK-5), a century-old district neighborhood school, served a largely immigrant student population. Well regarded within WCSD, Dickinson experienced very low teacher turnover; in 2014, over half of Dickinsons teachers had taught there for more than 20 years. As the sole administrator of this traditional district school, Dickinsons Principal Davila complied with the WCSD teachers contract, as well as other district and state policies. She had no special autonomy in staffing or scheduling.
Hurston PK8 School and Fitzgerald Elementary School PK5, also part of WCSD, each had been placed in turnaround by the state in 2010 because of persistent failure. At the time, Hurston had been functioning as a WCSD pilot school, which provided the principal with extensive autonomy in staffing, curriculum, and schedule. Under federal Race to the Top guidelines, the newly appointed principalsHurstons Principal Hinds and Fitzgeralds Principal Fortehad the right to replace all teachers, but could retain no more than half. Hinds replaced about 80% of the staff, and Forte replaced about 65%. Each school continued to enroll students from the same local community as before turnaround. Subsequently, both showed substantial growth on MCAS, allowing them to exit turnaround status at Level 1 of the states accountability rankings. After turnaround, both Hurston and Fitzgerald remained WCSD district schools, although each retained significant school-based control of its organization and management, making it possible to continue many of its initiatives.
Naylor Charter School (K8) and Rodriguez Charter School (PK8) had opened in Walker City 10 and 20 years earlier, respectively, as freestanding state charter schools. In 2014, Naylor was one of three schools in the expanding Naylor Charter Network. Although located within WCSD boundaries, these schools were exempt from local district policies. Since 2012, when the state began rating schools, both Naylor and Rodriguez Charter Schools have received a Level 1 rating.
Kincaid Charter School (68) was part of the Kincaid Charter Network, a CMO the state selected to restart a failing WCSD middle school in 2011. All of the schools teachers could reapply for positions in the new charter school, but few did, and none was rehired. All administrators, teachers, and staff were new to Kincaid Charter when it opened, although approximately 80% of the students returned, a higher proportion than had typically re-enrolled in prior years. As a restart school, Kincaid functioned as an in-district charter school. The local teachers union represented Kincaids staff, whose pay aligned with WCSDs negotiated scale, but the school was exempt from other contract provisions. Within two years, Kincaid Charter made significant gains in student test scores and achieved a Level 1 rating from the state.
TEACHER TEAMS AS A STRATEGY FOR IMPROVEMENT
Teachers across all six schools widely reported that they collaborated often with colleagues about curriculum, pedagogy, and their students, and administrators said that collaboration was a means for improving teachers skills and coordinating their efforts on behalf of all students. Teachers expressed respect for the knowledge, values, and hard work of fellow teachers and said that working collaboratively helped them to manage the continuous, intense demands of instruction and to align their efforts with those of their colleagues. A Hurston PK8 teachers praise and confidence in her peers echo the comments of many others across the study: The amount of support we have as a staff, whether its from administration or from each other, is amazing. We are a pretty cohesive group, by and large.
However, not all schools relied on formal instructional teams as part of their strategy for continuous improvement. Rodriguez Charter School encouraged teachers to work together and assigned instructional coaches to support individuals who needed help. When teachers preparation periods coincided, they could use them to collaborate. However, Rodriguez administrators did not require teachers to meet regularly in teams and did not arrange common planning time. During the schools weekly professional-development meetings, Rodriguez administrators often provided time when groups of teachers could plan curriculum or review students progress, yet teachers said they could not count on that time each week. Elementary school principal Rega explained that time was scarce: The big problem, honestly, is [finding] meeting time. These teachers are so stretched that to put another hour in to meet someone else . . . Its very hard to add another meeting. Therefore, although Rodriguez teachers said that they collaborated with colleagues, they did not use teams as the means for doing so.
In the other five schools, team meetings occurred regularly, and teachers widely said that their team helped them to teach better and contributed to their schools improvement, criteria that teachers in Charner-Laird et al.s earlier study (2017)used to assess their instructional teams. Individual teachers repeatedly said that they relied on their team. For example, when we asked a Fitzgerald teacher leader with six years of experience whom she would go to for support, she quickly responded, My team members. When asked further what kinds of support she might seek, she answered, Everything. When we probed further about when this might occur, she said, Every day, many times. We heard similar accounts from others. A Naylor teacher said, Were all on the same page. Everybody is committed to being a good teacher and [is] invested in not just their own students, but every student in the school. A Hurston teacher described how his team spends its time:
Some of it is sharing best practices and ideas that we have; some of its showing student work. Weve done things like show videos of tutoring sessions or classes to talk about students understanding. We brought in research to talk about together and also common planning. Its kind of a mixture of professional development [that feeds] into planning.
A Fitzgerald teacher wrapped up a summary of his teams activities, saying, It just helps you be reflective on your practice.
A Leader of Instruction at Kincaid Charter characterized the team as the teachers first line of defense, saying:
Its just a cohesive unit. . . . People are unified in their efforts here. You dont want to see anybody fail. I definitely think that, more so than at my [prior] schools, teachers feel like they can go to somebody and ask questions or admit if theyre struggling with something and get support from their coworkers.
Fitzgeralds Principal Forte attributed her schools rapid improvement after having been placed in turnaround to formal collaboration among teachers: I would say a lot of our success is because we really work at teams. The primary unit is the grade level team. . . . Its really like you are married to your team.
TWO AREAS OF FOCUS: ACADEMIC CONTENT AND THE STUDENT COHORT
Teams essentially had two areas of focus: Content teams concentrated on developing curriculum, lessons, and pedagogy. They also monitored student performance data (e.g., interim assessments, running records, exit tickets, or unit tests) to gauge the effectiveness of their instruction. Cohort teams focused on the students needs and behavior and the organizational culture that they experienced. In some primary grades, the same group of teachers met to address matters of both content and the cohort, although in grades 58, where teachers typically taught a single subject, separate teams focused on content and the cohort. A Kincaid Charter School teacher described his schools team assignments:
You basically are always part of two teams. Youre part of a cultural [cohort] team, and youre part of a department [content] team. Your department team teachers will never teach together, but you will plan [instruction] together. On your cohort team, you never teach the same subjects, but you all teach the same kids.
Teachers in all five schools had daily blocks of 5060 minutes for preparation and development, which were scheduled simultaneously as common planning time for teachers in the same grade level or content area. During at least one of these blocks each week, subgroups of teachers met in teams to address academic content, the student cohort, or both. Teachers then used their remaining blocks of preparation time to work independently or meet informally with colleagues.
Content Teams Planned Instruction and Monitored Students Learning
All five schools had content teams, composed of teachers who taught the same subject(s) either within a grade or across grades. This included primary grade-level teachers who taught in self-contained classes and teachers of upper-elementary or middle-school students who taught a single subject in multiple classes. Content teams sometimes included teachers of special education or English as a Second Language, who taught regularly in an inclusion class.
The schools in our study relied less on prepared curricula than their counterparts in many traditional schools, and their teachers participated in collaborative planning, which occurred in the context of content teams. Because it was a turnaround school, Hurstons elementary teachers met with their grade-level team to plan the sequence of topics and competencies they would all teach; this then guided their decisions about curriculum units and daily lesson plans. For example, second-grade teachers, who taught all subjects in self-contained classes, reported having spent their grade-level content meetings during the prior 10 months planning reading units that aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The team leader called this a very daunting task. We [had] never had a common curriculum for reading.
Throughout these schools, experienced and new teachers routinely reported that their grade-level and content teams reduced uncertainty about what and how to teach and enabled them to meet the continuous demands of planning, teaching, assessing, and revising a curriculum that stretched throughout the school year. However, some teachers identified drawbacks in team planning. One Naylor Charter teacher said, Co-planning is hard. Its one of the reasons that people like working in schools like this and then also get burnt out working in schools like this. Others expressed concern about finding the right balance between support and professional autonomy. One said, Sometimes the way you want to teach something is not the way the other person wants to teach. . . . Its a problem to figure out common ground every single week. Its rough and tough and exhausting. Nonetheless, most teachers at these five schools welcomed planning with their team because they thought it benefited both their students and the school. A Kincaid Charter history teacher with nearly a decade of experience summed up the benefit of his content teams process: [It has] helped turn the job of curriculum design into a much more manageable beast.
Shared Lesson Planning
At Kincaid Charter, Fitzgerald PK5, and Naylor Charter, teachers also shared responsibility for lesson plans. Based on their analysis of state and local curriculum standards, teams designed instructional units, and then individuals took responsibility for writing a set of lesson plans to be used by all team members. In some cases, lessons were detailed, including scripted introductions, explanations, and questions that the teachers could use to promote deeper thinking.
Naylor Charters teachers planned approximately five lessons each week. One teacher with 10 years of experience said, Right now Im planning math. . . . One of my co-teachers is planning reading. . . and then another teachers planning all of the science and writing. Another described his teams process: We shift it. . . . I started planning with reading. This is my second time planning math. I planned writing once. I planned science for a while. So we just shift, usually with the units. A middle-school science teacher who split responsibility for planning lessons with four Naylor colleagues said that the process was really helpful to us, not only because it allowed them to share the planning load, but also because it gets different eyes on the material. A second-grade teacher at Fitzgerald PK5 explained his teams process: Theres three of us [at the grade level] this year. I do reading, another teacher does the math planning, and another teacher does the writing planning. Those are our core subjects.
Unlike Naylor, where teachers decided who would plan for different subjects, at Fitzgerald, Principal Forte made those decisions based on her judgment about different teachers expertise. By Thursday of each week, Fitzgeralds teachers were expected to upload their draft lessons for the following week. Team members provided feedback during team meetings, while administrators responded in writing.
Across these three schools, team members did not simply exchange and use their colleagues prepared lessons, but instead critiqued and revised them together. A Naylor science teacher explained,:
Its not that other people dont have any input. . . . Well all give feedback on it. . . . Theyll be sending it out ahead of time so that we can then say, Hey, I really would like to see this in this lesson, or Im really confused about this part of the lab. Hows that going to work?
Another Naylor teacher described the process of give and take as he reviewed lessons with his colleagues:
Its great, because Ill have an idea and theyll make mine just so much better, so much stronger. Theyll call out the parts that are weak. Theyll call out the parts that are not really alive. . . . [Theyll say] Well, your questioning here doesnt really match the standard, or It doesnt seem like this part of the text . . . really fits. Maybe a different part of the text would work better.
Perceived Benefits and Challenges of Interdependent Lesson Planning
Many teachers at these three schools spoke very positively about the process, as did others at Hurston and Dickinson, where some teams also shared lesson-planning. Preparing 20 lessons each weekas teachers of traditional, self-contained elementary classes often mustlimits the depth of planning that any individual can do. However, Fitzgeralds teachers were more critical of the practice than those in other schools, in part because the principal decided which teachers would plan particular subjects. She also required them to use a detailed template and sometimes monitored whether teachers were, in fact, using that weeks prepared lessons. One Fitzgerald teacher claimed that his colleagues did not take the process of lesson-planning seriously and that few actually used the lessons prepared by their colleagues. However, other Fitzgerald teachers described more complicated responses. One recalled how he and his colleagues initially complained a bunch, but that the principal made it very clear that teachers have their own styles. Even though you get a plan from me that is written in a very specific way, you need to meet that objective in the best way suited for you. Another recalled that when the principal insisted that teachers use the planning template, We griped and we cried, but we did it as we were griping. In the end, she conceded, it pays off.
A few teachers raised concerns about individual team members who failed to deliver high-quality lessons. One recalled working with a colleague who was not very strong at curriculum design and didnt seem to like it very muchhis lessons were not very good. He observed that unless the person . . . really wants to do well, it can have a kind of negative effect.
Serious problems like these were eventually resolved when a teacher who failed to meet his colleagues expectations either left or was asked to leave the school. However, surprisingly few of the many teachers we interviewed said that they lacked confidence in their colleagues. One called her fellow teachers rock solid, which was consistent with the assessments voiced by others.
Monitoring Students Academic Progress
All schools in the study dedicated some content team time to analyzing data about students learning, a process that helped them gauge how effective their instruction was. Teams reviewed a wide range of data, from MCAS results and interim assessments to unit tests and students homework. For example, at Dickinson Elementary, Principal Davila convened a weekly meeting with teachers from paired grade levels (K1, 23, and 45), where they reviewed results from state tests, interim assessments, and assignments created by teachers. They then used their analysis to inform the next steps in their instruction. At Naylor Charter, a math teacher described how his 7th-grade content team redesigned their unit on probability after students performed poorly on a new interim assessment that was aligned with the Common Core. The depth of what they were being asked about probability increased pretty substantially. He said teachers on his team werent happy with the way the kids were performing on those types of questions and MCAS too. . . . There was one MCAS question that just destroyed our kids. It was something that we just had overlooked. He said that he and his colleagues realized that they needed to change both the content and the ways we delivered it. Notably, teams in all five schools analyzed dataincluding standardized test results, regular class assignments, and teachers running records of their students progressto inform individual and team decisions about curriculum and instruction.
Cohort Teams Monitored Students Needs, Behavior, and the Organizational Culture
Whereas content team meetings explicitly focused on curriculum and instruction, cohort team meetings were dedicated to ensuring that students could and would do their part as learners in the school. Teams did this by systematically discussing the needs of individual students within their grade-level cohort, reviewing the groups behavior, and strengthening aspects of the organizational culture. For example, one of Kincaids middle-school teachers described a typical Friday cohort meeting, where teachers discussed what happened during the week, what students were doing well, what they were not doing well, whether any individual students had problems.
Reviewing Individual Students Needs and Progress
All schools designated some team time for tracking and discussing individual students, a process that many said increased teachers shared responsibility for all students. Teachers reported that focusing on individuals during cohort meetings ensured that no students personal needs or performance would be overlooked. At Dickinson PK5 and Fitzgerald PK5, this was largely done during grade-level meetings, which included both content and cohort discussions. However, each of these schools also convened a standing student-support team that met weekly to systematically review the academic success and well-being of individual students throughout the school. These teachers and administrators believed that students academic performance could be affected by their home life, their socio-emotional health, and poverty. Other schools focused primarily on students behavior while at school. Teachers at Hurston PK8, Kincaid Charter, and Naylor Charter met in separate grade-level cohort teams where they reviewed students, both individually and as a group. By focusing on the academic and personal well-being of individual students, teachers could identify those who were experiencing difficulty in several classes and then intervene to get them back on track. For example, Hurstons middle-school cohort teams met weekly with relevant student support staff (the dean of discipline and counselor for the grade and representatives of the after-school program). One teacher described the process for reviewing individual students:
Its as easy as, Hey, can we put Felix on the agenda for Friday? It might start as an email early in the week. It could start like that or a casual conversation between teachers. Then wed decide what has to happen from there. Is it a conversation with a teacher who has a relationship with him? Is it a phone call home? Sometimes we invite parents to come up during these meetings. We might set aside time. If the counselors there, they might recommend a course of action.
These interventions were generally effective, but sometimes required longer-term focus on particular students over time. If we do revisit, its usually like, Hey, this isnt working. . . . The students that weve presented, typically, whatever issue it is gets ironed out.
Monitoring Students Behavior
Each school had a dress code, rules for how to behave in the corridors (for example, silence at Naylor and Kincaid, quiet filing at Fitzgerald and Hurston), and expectations for how students should conduct themselves in classes (respectfully and attentively in all schools). Rules were designed to promote an orderly environment, conducive to learning. Teachers worked to make their expectations explicit and to respond consistently across classes. During cohort team meetings, they took stock of their students behavior, with some schools focusing on strict compliance more than others. At their self-described no excuses school, Kincaids teachers regularly reviewed individual students adherence to the schools standards for dress and behavior, responding quickly and firmly to violations. Teams in other schools focused their review more generally on whether the rules were being upheld by the group.
Strengthening the Cohorts Culture
Teams also created new activities, incentives, and rewards to motivate students in their cohort. Teachers tried to nurture an organizational culture that kept students positively invested in learning. For example, Hurstons middle school had adopted a set of behavioral norms called PRIDE (Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Daring, and Excellence). Teachers recognized individual students when they acted in a way that was consistent with a PRIDE norm by giving them a small certificate. A teacher explained, It was just in a moment, You did something good; here you go. You have to earn 19 more of these to [qualify for] the ice cream party at the end of the month. She explained that this approach had a more positive tilt than reactive punishment, and then added, 80% of the class gets to go.
At no-excuses Kincaid Charter, where each grade level was divided into three cohorts, a teacher explained that within her cohort, We all run our classrooms the same way, the same expectations for the kids. We have the same consequences. We have the same incentives. We have the same cheers, the same chants. Kincaids teams also created activities, incentives, and rewards to motivate their students. One team leader explained that certain practices were consistent throughout the school, while others were customized for the cohort. For example, students were expected to call out answers or raise their hands in similar ways across the school, but the prizes that were giving for highest homework completion might be customized by cohort.
WHAT CONTRIBUTED TO TEAMS' EFFECTIVENESS?
Despite school-to-school variation in how teams worked, study participants identified a similar set of factors that they thought contributed to their teams success: School leaders made the larger purpose of their teamwork clear. Teachers could count on regular, uninterrupted time to work with their colleagues. Administrators remained informed about and engaged in the teams work. And in some schools, teacher-leaders facilitated team meetings. Each of these factors supported and enhanced the teams work.
Having a Clear, Worthwhile Purpose
First, teachers accounts illustrated the ways in which their work on teams was guided by a shared purpose. They were not meeting just to meet. Each of the schools had an explicit mission to eliminate the racial achievement gap and reduce educational disparities between their low-income students and wealthy students in other schools. That mission gave purpose and practical meaning to teachers work on teams as they developed curriculum and lessons, assessed the success of their instruction, and monitored students behavior, needs, and progress. A Naylor administrator explained that her charter school achieved its mission by giv[ing] our students the education they deserve. These schools did not simply have a mission; they were, as Principal Forte told her teachers, on a mission. Based on her research in nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies, Edmondson (2012) concluded that managers support effective teams by framing an aspirational purpose for their ongoing interaction (p. 100). In these schools, principals imparted that purpose through both words and actions. A Hurston teacher attributed his teams effective focus to the staff and the expectations from [the principal]. . . . Here are the goals that you created. Go do them. In contrast to unproductive team meetings described by teachers in less successful schools (Charner-Laird et al., 2017), these teachers described how their meetings were fueled by such a compelling purpose.
Sufficient, Regular Time for Team Meetings
Second, these schools gave team time priority over many other activities, and, therefore, teachers could count on that time being protected, which made it worthwhile to prepare and actively participate. Hargreaves (1994) called the work of teams in some schools contrived collegiality, because compulsory meetings lead only to predictable outcomes and foster resentment among teachers (p. 208). Other studies have found that, when team time is short, intermittent, or unpredictable, meetings often become occasions for check-ins with colleagues about routine mattersplayground monitoring or field tripsor opportunities for individuals to socialize or prepare for their next class (Neil & Johnston, 2005; Supovitz, 2002; Troen & Boles, 2012). With few exceptions, the teachers in our study prized team time. One Hurston teacher recalled, At no point was it ever Oh, [lets] slack off and just hang out for a couple of hours. Its never been like that. . . . Why would you just sit around and not do anything?
Available Team Time Varied Across Schools
Although each of these schools dedicated blocks of time for teams to meet, expectations for teams varied widely across the sample, depending largely on how much time was available during the teachers work day and whether a collective bargaining agreement limited the principals say in how that time could be used. Of the schools we studied, Dickinson PK5 had the least amount of dedicated time for team meetings and Naylor Charter had the most.
Dickinsons teachers were required to be in school for six hours and were guaranteed five periods each week for preparation and planning, one of which was to be used at the principals discretion in accordance with the WCSD contract. Although this was far less time than other principals of the schools we studied controlled, Davila made the most of it by convening and facilitating weekly team meetings with teachers who spanned two grade levels, which allowed teachers to meet in smaller, horizontal or vertical subgroups. She explained, they plan together and collaborate and talk about individual students, interactions that typically then extended beyond a single weekly meeting: They have four common planning times, and if I walk around during their common planning times, theyre usually sitting in each others classrooms, talking about planning. Teachers confirmed that they spent many hours working with colleagues during their preparation periods, at lunch, and on their own time after school.
At the other end of the spectrum was Naylor Charter School, where teachers were not unionized and had an 8½-hour work day. Teacher teams convened daily for a content meeting, weekly to review data about their students learning and achievement, and weekly as cohort teams to review the progress of students they shared. Then, every Friday during the schools professional development time, grade-level teams continued their work together for an additional 12 hours. Samantha Nelson, director of the Naylor Charter Network, explained that the network had big expectations for collaboration. . . . One of our four big organizational values is We grow best together. The schools substantial allocation of team time reflected that belief and reinforced that priority.
Administrators at other schools did their best to protect and dedicate regular blocks of time for team meetings. Charter-school heads could create their own schedule for professional development and team meetings. Due to the autonomy their principals retained after exiting turnaround status, teachers at Hurston and Fitzgerald met as teams during two or more planning periods weekly, which most teachers welcomed.
Teachers Valued Dedicated Team Time
Providing predictable time for collaboration proved to be essential, both to ensure regular interaction and to convince teachers that school leaders believed their joint work together was valuable. A Hurston teacher explained:
We now have schedules that are like a dream. Its arranged so that our content and grade-level meetings are two consecutive hours a week. That uninterrupted time is so precious that we can actually get a whole lot of work done. . . . This year, the new piece is that the grade-level teams all meet at the same time. That way, if we need to check in about something, or two teams might need to come together on something, we can do that.
Therefore, although arranging and securing sufficient time for team meetings was far more challenging in some schools than others, administrators across all five schools succeeded in doing so. In response, teachers willingly invested in the process and participated in serious, sustained deliberations with colleagues.
Ongoing, Engaged Support by Administrators
Teams benefited further from administrators support and attention, either up close or from a distance. Several principals attended meetings often, although Davila was the only one who regularly chaired her schools team meetings. Hurstons administrators each took responsibility for following teachers work on four content teams. Principal Hindss assignment included English language arts teams at three grades and the school-wide arts team:
Those are my four teams. So I go to almost all of their meetings. . . . All of us, the administrative team, are on the Google Docs for all the teams and the listservs for all the teams so that we can follow electronically whats happening, even if were not there.
A middle school teacher leader in math commented on the principals role:
He doesnt micromanage, but he plays a role in some of the small decision-making we have in our different teams. Hell pop up and attend different team meetings, or hell read the notes and give feedback. But its not Okay, you guys. You have to do this. This team, you have to do this. This team, you have to do that.
A second-grade teacher confirmed this account: Hes there more just to keep it on track and suggest and answer questions when they come along that none of us on the teaching level really know that answer. However, several teachers said that when ELA test scores in grades 35 failed to improve over time, Hinds stepped in, took a more active role, and, as one said, laid down the law, requiring the team to focus on skills featured by the Common Core, such as close reading. Several teachers reportedly objected to that intervention.
Kincaids administrators, like Hurstons, sometimes took a more active role if a team encountered difficulties or improvement on test scores stalled. A supervisor in math said, Our seventh-grade team, I go to almost every planning block just because theyve struggled more, just in terms of getting results in student achievement. Im there just to provide extra support to them. She contrasted that with her involvement with the sixth- and eighth-grade teams, where I pop in every once in a while, because the teams are just really strong and the [teacher] leaders are running the show really well, so I tend to not prioritize being at those. At a minimum, other principals and administrators emphasized the importance of the teams work and followed the teams plans and decisions.
Facilitation by Trained Teacher Leaders
One of the most notable and promising practices in the three schools where the state had intervened and provided additional funding (Hurston PK8, Fitzgerald PK5, and Kincaid Charter) was that teacher- leaders formally facilitated teams. Hurston committed a full-time administrator to supervise these teacher leaders work, meeting weekly with each to review the prior team meeting, provide feedback on facilitation, and help to plan the next.
With very few exceptions, Hurstons teachers praised their team leaders, although, not surprisingly, some who held the role found it challenging. A content-team leader at Kincaid, who met weekly with his supervisor, said that he was still trying to understand his role, which straddled a line between manager and colleague: We work as a team, but I am a point person. . . . [The] opportunity for constant discourse . . . is super enriching, and fulfilling for me as a teacherknowing that Im making an impact, not only in my classroom, but Im affecting the entire grade. A sixth-grade teacher at Kincaid, who had taught only three years when she was appointed to be a content leader, was at first reluctant to take the position. However, she said, it ended up being the most fulfilling and exciting thing of this year.
Hurston and Fitzgerald both relied on federal grants to provide a $6,000 stipend to all teacher leaders who facilitated teams, funding that ended once the schools successfully exited turnaround. In response to the lost funds, Hurston secured a small grant from a local foundation, reduced the number of teacher leaders, and reallocated the administrators time so that he supervised only two experienced teacher leaders who, in turn, supervised others. When we collected data, teacher leaders at Fitzgerald still held their positions but no longer received stipends. Principal Forte had encouraged individuals to continue in their role without pay. Several teachers suggested that this adjustment was working in the short run. However, others expressed doubts that the role would continue to be effective over time as an unpaid assignment. At the newer Kincaid Charter, teacher leaders also were paid $6,000 for facilitating teams, although participants said that the stipend was expected to drop to $2,500 the following year. This led several to suggest that interest in the position might decline, especially given the demands of the work.
TEAMS ACHIEVED THEIR INTENDED PURPOSES
Overall, teams augmented and reinforced collaboration among teachers, which they said improved learning for all students. This, in turn, led to greater instructional coherence within grade levels and subject areas throughout the school. It was in that context that teams increased individual teachers opportunities to improve their own instruction. Strong professional cultures within their schools provided encouragement and sustained these teachers in their work as individuals and colleagues.
Increasing Coherence Throughout the School
Teams increased coherence across classes and grades, building a consistent curriculum and ensuring that teachers assumed responsibility for one anothers success. Teachers credited their teams for their students and their schools improvement and often said that they chose to stay at their school because of its steady support for teams. They explained how teams promoted professional accountability among teachers, which counteracted teachings traditional norms of privacy and autonomy. As one experienced Kincaid teacher explained:
You have to be willing to be a team player, which I think is very easy to say but very [difficult to do]. Because teachers like their autonomy. Most of them like to be able to go into a classroom and decide what exactly they want to do that day. . . . They like to be able to change things. But when you work as a team, you dont have the autonomy.
Asked what she would tell a prospective teacher who was interested in teaching at Kincaid, she said, Be ready to be on a team and be ready to be accountable to your team. Without that readiness to participate, she explained, youre going to have to have some hard conversations with your team, perhaps with your [supervisor]. Just get on board.
Repeatedly, teachers and administrators comments suggested that teachers deliberately aligned their instructional expectations for students. They variously spoke of increasing rigor, setting high expectations, and establishing consistency across classrooms. One Hurston teacher explained that when the school entered turnaround, all of the students were below grade levelliterally all of them. The teachers and administrators, motivated by a mission to provide their students with the education that all students deserve, accepted the challenge of creat[ing] a curriculum that was going to catch them up. One Fitzgerald teacher explained that the coherence achieved within grade levels would be apparent not only to students who compared their classes, but also to visitors:
If the superintendent of schools were to walk into the 3rd-grade [area] and just poke his or her head into every classroomor anyone from the state just popped in, they should be able to experience the same level of instruction in every class. It doesnt necessarily have to be word for word the same lesson, but the rigor of it and the experience of it should be the same.
In departmentalized sections of the schools, typically grades 5 through 8, teachers of subjects such as science or mathematics were coordinating curriculum and instruction from grade to grade. At the elementary level, however, schools had only begun to align their work vertically. Combining grade levels in team meetings at Dickinson led teachers to consider the importance of knowing more about the classes above or below them. However, an elementary team leader at Hurston said, I think vertical integration is still [ahead as] a huge area of growth for us.
Improving Individuals Instruction
Individual teachers repeatedly credited their team for increasing their effectiveness with their own students. Importantly, however, when they described the individual benefits they derived from their team, it was typically within the context of the schools larger improvement agenda. Many teachers, like this Naylor teacher, talked about being on the same page with colleagues. She went on to explain, Everybody is committed to being a good teacher and invested in not just their own students, but every student in the school, which she said creates a really open, honest environment. She could walk into any of the other kindergarten teachers classrooms and say, I just taught a lesson, and it was bad. This really didnt go well at all. What did you guys do that I could do better?
Although no school reported having deliberately created teams to support the induction of new teachers, we repeatedly heard that teams served that purpose. Novices quickly became fully engaged with their peers in making consequential decisions about what and how to teach. They could observe others classes and be observed teaching as part of their teams routines, rather than waiting for intermittent help from a single mentor whose interests and pedagogical style might not align with their own. A teacher at Kincaid said, I think [thats really important] for the new teachers, because even if you dont know everything, youre always informed with everything. Theres no, Im doing this and Im going to hide it because its such a good idea. Everybody knows about it. Meanwhile, more experienced teachers could learn new skills from early-career teachers. This type of integrated professional culture, which engages teachers with differing levels of experience in sharing responsibility for students and peers, has been shown to be effective in supporting and retaining teachers (Kardos & Johnson, 2007).
One unintended drawback of these schools reliance on teams was that teachers who were specialists sometimes had no team to call their own. The sole science teacher at one school observed with obvious disappointment, Im kind of on my own here. At all schools, teachers of art, dance, music, and physical education taught students during the time blocks when teams of core teachers met. With so much of the schools energy being devoted to grade-level or departmental teams, teachers without a team sometimes said that they felt excluded. Special educators or ESL teachers, both those who pushed into classes and those who pulled students out for tutoring, often were expected to organize their own collegial meetings, which did not always happen. A resource-room teacher at Fitzgerald said, I dont really communicate with anybody on a regular basis. Many of these teachers did not feel that they belonged to the school in the same ways that regular classroom teachers did.
The work of improving the school and developing individuals instruction was never finished. New students enrolled whose needs had to be addressed. The state replaced its standards with those of the Common Core, requiring rapid changes in the curriculum and pedagogy. Experienced teachers moved on to other positions and novices arrived to take their places. Throughout such change, these schools looked to teams as the main means to guide and support their teachers.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE, POLICY, AND RESEARCH
This study focused on six schools within one city, all of which successfully served students living in high-poverty, high-minority communities. Teachers and administrators in all schools reported high rates of collaboration, although only five relied on teams of teachers as a key component of their improvement strategy. Most teachers and administrators interviewed in those five schools endorsed teams as a valuable mechanism for developing and maintaining an effective instructional program, monitoring students experiences and success. Teachers said that their experience on a team reduced the isolation of teaching, supported them in developing curriculum and lessons, ensured that students received close attention, and contributed to a more successful school.
Teachers participated in both content teams (with colleagues who taught the same subject) and cohort teams (with colleagues who taught the same students). At the elementary level, the same team sometimes served both functions. Teachers main responsibility as members of content teams was to develop curriculum and to track the effectiveness of their instruction by reviewing an array of data about students learning. In three schools, individual teachers also prepared lesson plans, which they critiqued and revised with team members, who then taught them in their classes. As members of cohort teams, teachers identified students who were having difficulty and devised responses to support them. They reviewed student behavior and created activities and incentives for cohorts of students to instill and reinforce the schools core academic and social values.
Overall, teachers reported that teams in these five schools supported their instructional needs while advancing the schools progress in achieving its goals. Various factors were found to contribute to the teams effectiveness. These included having a worthy purpose; being assured of sufficient, regular time for meetings; experiencing ongoing engagement and support by administrators; and being facilitated by trained teacher leaders. Several of these factors were substantially influenced by policy. State-authorized charter schools, district schools under the states oversight during turnaround or restart, and WCSD schools that had gained special status as pilot schools could exercise more discretion in staffing, funding, and scheduling than the traditional district school.
Our evidence suggests strongly that, in the right context and with the right conditions, teachers welcome collaboration and thrive as they work on teams. With very few exceptions, the teachers we interviewed preferred collaboration to isolation, particularly given the intense demands of teaching in their schools. However, they did try to find the right balance between holding true to their professional judgments about what and how to teach and accommodating the sometimes differing views of their teammates. Teachers on most teams had to reach agreement about curriculum, instruction, and strategies for managing students behavior, both in their class and across the school. Teachers in several schools also had to find common ground about how to teach individual lessons. Making these decisions was sometimes difficult because teachers had different training, priorities, and experiences. However, reaching accord was important for their students, who moved from class to class and grade to grade within the school.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
The principals of these schools recognized that implementing teacher teams was a comprehensive, not a piecemeal process, and other principals who seek to create successful teams can learn from their experience. Fundamental to these teams success was the confidence teachers had in their peers knowledge, skills, and good intentions. Most attributed the professional quality and commitment of their colleagues to their schools thorough hiring process and ongoing supervision of instruction, both of which principals largely directed. The principals also carefully managed the school schedule to facilitate teamwork and informal collaboration. Common planning time and regular, dedicated blocks of team time require administrators deliberate efforts to ensure that teachers who should work together can and do work together. Without such careful planning, assurance, and support, competing obligations will steadily undermine the potential of teams. Also, it was principals who communicated a clear, meaningful purpose for the teams work, grounding it explicitly in the schools mission. If teachers agreed with that purpose, they became motivated to invest in their teams work.
Although principals differed in the extent to which they were actively involved with teams, teachers appreciated them for closely following their teams progress. However, when principals were perceived to be intrusive or to treat teachers primarily as a means to an end, teachers experienced a loss of agency and withdrew their commitment in response.
Recent research documents the importance, not only of collaboration among teachers, but also of relational trust between teachers and administrators, which makes collaboration on teams meaningful and consequential (Bryk et al, 2010). In the schools we studied, teachers exercised considerable agency, both as individuals and as teams, which probably would not have happened without their principals encouragement. In their 2014 study, Johnson et al. found that, when a principal took an inclusive rather than an instrumental approach to teachers participation in decision-making, teachers were more willing to invest in schoolwide reforms. Arguably all principals seeking to rely on teams for improvement should become skilled at developing relational trust and practicing inclusive leadership. They must be ready to mediate, broker and troubleshoot; to offer advice and to accept it; and to learn alongside their teachers. Teams will not succeed as a top-down initiative with only superficial buy-in from teachers.
Principals also should note that teams were not a stand-alone initiative within these schools. Every school had a purposeful set of interdependent approaches to hiring, supporting, and developing teachers. Ambitious recruitment and hiring procedures were designed to ensure that teachers were well-matched with their school. From early stages of the hiring process, all teachers understood that they would be expected to collaborate with colleagues. Teachers repeatedly expressed confidence in the quality of that hiring process, which assured them that they could count on their colleagues. Also, administrators frequently observed teachers instruction and provided them with written feedback, which they discussed in face-to-face meetings. Therefore, teachers had several sources of advice and feedback about their instruction, which supplemented their team experiences.
Teachers, too, can learn from this study. Teachers enjoyed the rewards of working in a strong, positive professional culture. They recognized that participating actively with colleagues on their team helped them to teach better and to achieve a greater sense of success with their students, which research shows contributes to retention of teachers (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003). New teachers could count on regular, meaningful engagement with their more experienced colleagues, which far surpassed the hit-or-miss quality of many mentoring programs.
Three schools teams were said to function especially well because teacher leaders facilitated their work. These schools not only capitalized on their teacher-leaders expertise, but also gave promise to other teachers that their own career opportunities might expand as they developed professionally. If schools are to move beyond the limitations of the egg-crate school, then teachers will need to acknowledge and respond to the reality that some of their peers are more knowledgeable and skilled than others. This means being ready to graciously learn from some colleagues and to generously advise others.
IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY
This study also has important lessons for policymakers. Policy indirectly, but powerfully, affected the likelihood that teams could be an effective component of a schools improvement strategy. As they managed their schools, four principals could rely on additional funding and flexibility granted through state regulations, charter-school laws, and local WCSD provisions for pilot schools. These laws and regulations gave them substantial discretion in staffing, scheduling, and budget allocations, each of which had important consequences for the success of teams. In some cases, principals held all formal authority for these functions; in others, such as hiring or the use of time or resources, teachers also had a say. Some reformers assert that policymakers should grant all principals sweeping autonomy to manage their schools. However, this will not, in itself, lead to effective teams. To state the obvious: That all depends on what a principal does. Certainly many charter schools fail to accomplish what these schools did, even though their principals may have comparable discretion. Before the state intervened and placed Hurston in turnaround status, it functioned as a WCSD pilot school, which meant that its principal had broad authority over staffing, curriculum, and schedule. Nevertheless, Hurston was failing to serve its students. Also, Principal Davila at Dickinson managed to make teams work in her school despite having considerably less formal autonomy than the other principals in our study. Still, our data suggest that she could have accomplished more with additional funding, greater flexibility in staffing, and more say in how teachers time was used.
This study suggests strongly that principals should have a substantial say in who teaches in their school, and in fact, at the time of our study, WCSD was moving in that direction. No school should be required to accept a teacher who is reluctant to teach there or expects to be unfettered by the schools expectation for collaboration among teachers. Bryk et al. (2010) concluded that teachers who are unwilling to take on the hard work of change and align with colleagues in a common reform agenda must leave (p. 208). We are not arguing that teachers should be at-will employees, as they were in the three charter schools in this study, but we are convinced that school-based hiring is essential. New teachers should be well informed about a schools norms and expectations before being offered and then accepting a position. Subsequently, all teachers should be held to a high standard in their day-to-day work by both their peers and their principal.
Schools also must have adequate funds and flexibility if they are to arrange common planning time and sufficient meeting time for teams. These school leaders understood that the demanding work of teams could not be completed at lunch or after hourseven though many participants described how collaboration that began in meetings often extended well beyond the school day. Both students and teachers in traditional public schools deserve more time for learning and development. Often such time is made available when a school is targeted by the state for improvement and granted additional resources. However, usually those resources are withdrawn once the school makes progress, which is surely short-sighted. While they were in turnaround, Hurston and Fitzgerald used additional money to institute important reforms, including extra time for professional development and stipends for teacher leaders who facilitated teams. However, when they lost those funds and encountered additional budget cuts, some predicted that the progress these schools had achieved would be lost and that those teachers and administrators who had worked so hard would be left frustrated and cynical. This suggests that, when schools improve by wisely using additional funding to deepen and expand their efforts, they cannot be expected to sustain that improvement once the grant runs out. Policymakers must consider dedicating additional funds over the long-term in order to ensure that effective practices endure and high-poverty schools can maintain the level of effectiveness they have achieved for their students.
IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH
Our findings provide additional understanding about the topics that teams productively address. We conducted our comparative case study at the same time that Ronfeldt et al. (2015) were analyzing survey data from Miami-Dade. Both studies found that teacher teams benefit from focusing on curriculum and instruction. Our study provides detailed information about what teams actually do when that occurs. Whereas Ronfeldt et al. found that teachers had relatively few opportunities to deliberate about their students, teachers in our study all had time to review both the cohort of students they taught and individual students personal and academic progress. Teachers widely reported that such time was well spent. Further, Ronfeldt et al. identified an important puzzle in their data: When teachers collaborated extensively about student assessments, test scores rose, but teachers did not report that this activity was nearly as helpful as collaborating about instruction. Our case studies suggest that teachers do find it worthwhile to collaborate about a broad range of data (including not only test scores, but also students assignments and teachers own assessments), especially when they are closely linked to decisions about what and how to teach. Therefore, we concluded from our case studies that assessing data probably is best done in the context of reviewing and revising approaches to curriculum and instruction. By comparing findings from these two studies about the same issuewhat topics teams can most productively addresswe can see the benefits of moving iteratively between studying large and small samples and relying on both qualitative and quantitative data to better understand how teams can be used effectively.
Further research is warranted about many topics that emerged from our study: the conditions that support collaboration among teachers, the role that teams play in instructional improvement and teachers career decisions, and what principals can do to advance their schools mission by endorsing and supporting teams. More specifically, do differences in the structure and facilitation of teams affect what they accomplish? How does participation on various types of teams (content, cohort, horizontal, vertical) influence teachers instruction and students learning? Do the benefits of joint lesson-planning outweigh the challenges inherent in the process? If so, do those benefits play out at all grade levels and in all subjects? In schools where teachers report having effective teams, what attitudes, skills, and behaviors do principals exhibit? In what ways does participation on teams affect teachers instructional practice? How does the experience of facilitating teams influence teacher-leaders subsequent career moves?
Each of these questions warrants inquiry in a variety of state and local contexts, using different research approaches. The research presented here demonstrates that teams can be effective and that, under the right conditions, teachers embrace and benefit from interdependent work. However, if research is to sufficiently inform policymakers and practitioners about how best to improve urban schools, we need to know much more about how teams succeed or why they fail under different conditions and in different contexts. If researchers build on prior work, their cumulative findings can inform those in practice and policy about how best to establish, maintain, and strengthen teacher teams on behalf of all students.
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Table A1. Number of Interviewees at Each School
aAdministrators include directors of CMOs and school-based administrators who directly supervise teachers.
bNon-teaching staff includes instructional coaches, parent coordinators, data leaders, recruitment officers, deans of discipline, and other administrators who do not teach students and do not supervise teachers.
Table A2. Total Number of Teachers Interviewed at Each School and Years of Experience
aDoes not include Teachers in Training.
Appendix B: Interview Protocols
Teacher Interview Protocol
Intro: Study explanation emphasizing that we really want to learn about your experience at this school.
How did you come to be in your current position at this school?
Starting with college, can you tell us what youve done?
Probe for: training and employment
2. Current teaching assignment
What do you teach here?
How did you wind up in this position?
3. Overall view of school
If another teacher would ask you, Whats it like to teach at _______? How might you respond?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a teacher here?
How were you hired at this school? Step-by-step.
Do teachers play a role in hiring other teachers? If so, how?
Has the hiring process changed at this school? If so, how and why?
Did you have some kind of induction as a new teacher at this school? What worked and what didnt?
How are new teachers inducted now? How have things changed since you got here?
What kinds of supports are available here for teachers to improve their instruction?
What works well for you? What doesnt? (Probe: PD, Coaching, Collaboration, Evaluation)
How is your teaching evaluated? Describe the process.
Was it helpful? How?
Who do you go to for support? For what?
9. Social & psychological supports
What sorts of social and psychological supports does your school offer for students?
What support do you get for interacting with parents and families?
10. Career goals
How long do you expect to stay at this school? In what roles?
If yes: What keeps you at this school?
If no: Why do you think you might leave?
What role does the union or the contract play in this school?
12. More: Do you have any additional comments?
Principal Interview Protocol
Overview of study: Six schools, all high-poverty, high-minority. All Level 1.
How long have you been at this school? Prior experience in education? Anything else we should know about how you got here?
2. School overview
Could you first provide an overview of its structure and programs?
(Where applicable) What does it mean for your school to be a pilot/turnaround/charter school?
(Where applicable) How did you go about selecting teachers when ---- was placed in turnaround?
How would you describe it to a teacher or parent who might be interested in itboth its strengths and weaknesses?
3. Teachers: Wed like to get a sense of who your teachers are.
Where do they come from?
What formal or informal preparation do they have?
What attracts them to the school?
Approximately, what proportion has fewer than 10 years of experience? 5 years of experience? 05 years of experience? (Has that changed or remained steady?)
4. Recruitment and hiring
Could you describe the process you use to recruit and hire teachers? (Applicants per position? Teaching demonstration? Who decides?)
What challenges do you face in recruiting teachers?
Are there specific demographics or subject areas that you have trouble finding/attracting? If so, how have you addressed those challenges?
How do you assign teachers to a particular grade or subject?
Could you describe the teachers responsibilities, both during school hours and outside of school hours? Scheduled and unscheduled time?
Please tell us about the pay scale for teachers. Are there additional stipends? If so, can you describe these opportunities?
Are the teachers organized by teams, grade-levels, subjects? If so, what does that mean for how they do their work? What is the work of those teams?
What supports can a new teacher count on in getting started? And for more experienced teachers?
Are there specialized roles for some teachers (Teach Plus, team leaders, etc.) If so, please describe these roles.
Does the school provide a curriculum for the teachers? If so, please tell us about it.
11. Professional Learning
Do you have formal professional development? Instructional coaches? If so, please tell us about them.
12. Supervision and evaluation
How do you supervise teachers? How do you evaluate teachers? Are these separate processes? Do students test scores play a role in evaluating teachers?
How frequently do you dismiss or decide not to rehire a teacher? Reasons?
How long do teachers stay? Why do they stay? Why do they leave? Is there a type of teacher who stays or leaves? Is turnover a challenge?
15. Policy context
Does state or local policy play a role in how you approach building your teaching capacity?
What role if any does a teachers union play at your school?
17. Have we missed anything?
Appendix C: List of Codes and Descriptors
Descriptor Categories for Characterizing Interviewees
Note. All names of schools, districts, and individuals are pseudonyms. Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.