The Intersection

Uncommon Learning in a Time of Core Standards

May 1, 2013


New research from the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) shows that educators in every subject area and role are eager to work together to deepen literacy learning—77% of educators, principals, and librarians agreed that developing student literacy is one of the most important responsibilities they have. It also showed that educators are committed to common-sense changes to improve teaching and learning practices: they most value time to co-plan with colleagues to create new lessons or instructional strategies and to analyze how their students are developing and what they can do together to advance progress.

In fields like trauma care and the building trades that have seen sharp gains in quality over the past generation, the emergence of new standards for professional practice coincided with a focus on improving collaborative decision-making and inquiry to solve problems in real time. As state standards are implemented, if we want to see similar gains in literacy learning, we must create space for innovation by understanding that effective collaboration in schools doesn’t occur by happenstance—it takes practice. And while our standards may be common, the strategies that fully engage students tend to be uncommon—tailored to students strengths, interests, and needs by communities of educators who bring varied expertise to advancing literacy learners in every subject area.

On the face of it, these results don’t seem surprising—in every field, professionals benefit from connecting with dedicated colleagues to improve practice. What is surprising, even alarming, is how rarely collaborative activities that are essential to improving outcomes are supported in our schools. Here is what we learned from NCLE survey respondents about support for working together in their schools:

•    Only 32% have a chance to frequently co-create or reflect with colleagues about how a lesson has worked.
•    Only 21% are given time to frequently examine student work with colleagues.
•    Only 14% frequently receive feedback from colleagues.
•    And only 10% frequently have the opportunity to observe the teaching practice of a colleague.

Even worse, evidence suggests that time afforded to educators to collaborate and problem-solve is eroding quickly. As recently as 2009, a MetLife study indicated that 68% of educators had more than an hour per week to engage in structured collaboration with colleagues to improve student learning. By 2012, only 48% had an hour or more per week for this essential work. In what professional field can practice improve if more than half of the practitioners don’t have even an hour a week to work together collaboratively?

But the NCLE survey data also gives us a foundation to build upon. It indicates that in schools where educators report that professional collaboration is routinely practiced, trust among all educators is high and new learning about effective practices is shared much more rapidly. It makes sense that where principals, school system leaders, and instructional coaches model collaborative decision-making and tackling problems as shared questions to be studied and solved, real change in student learning results.

How do students benefit when teachers collaborate routinely? Where teachers regularly share information about students’ progress, interests, and literacy learning challenges, students get more opportunities to solve problems and practice critical skills.  Rather than shuffling through a disjointed school day with isolated reading and writing tasks, students find it easier to connect what they learn in different subjects because their teachers coordinate instructional approaches.  By thinking together about why student literacy learning thrives or lags in each subject, it is much easier for educators to be precise and purposeful in reaching each learner.

While it is true that there are different ways to find time for building educator capacity, many schools have found that the phrase “working together is working smarter” is valid for teachers and students alike. That is, when students understand that their writing will be read by other students or family or community members, students learn how to write to varied audiences and teachers gain time to “coach” writing rather than just grade papers. Administrators who commit to creating time for focused collaboration are finding new ways to “cover” non-academic administrative duties so that educators can focus on improving student learning.

As core standards encourage educators to teach conceptually, building capacity for better local decision-making is essential. The research is in: educators want to work together to improve literacy learning. It is incumbent upon all of us to help create the time needed for richer teaching and learning by stripping away non-essential duties and too-frequent assessments from the over-crowded school day.


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