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March/April 2014

Key to student success lies with collaboration
By Bob Klingborg

Bob Klingborg is director of Capital Area Career Center, providing career and technical education to 21 high schools in the Springfield, Illinois area.

Educators face many challenges, including preparing students for life and careers in the 21st century and helping all students experience the joy of learning. To meet these challenges, teachers and administrators must collaborate within their schools and across schools. Just as principals can no longer stay in their offices, instructors also cannot seal themselves inside their classrooms.

Research shows when teachers successfully collaborate to analyze student performance, create interventions for struggling students, and continue their own professional learning, they can increase their ability. When principals permit teachers to do what they know is best for kids, children learn more and teachers find more satisfaction in their work. Collaboration creates a win-win-win situation for students, teachers, and administrators.

Ideally, teachers will have the necessary time to meet during the school day, several times a week. Collaboration between teachers who share responsibility for student achievement should not be considered an add-on; it would be the normal way of doing things.

The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Collaborating for Student Success in 2010 studied how teachers and principals view collaboration and the ways it is practiced in their schools. The survey found that “public school teachers and principals share a belief in the relationship between student success and collaborative school environments that emphasize a sense of responsibility for teachers, the principal and students themselves.”

The study also found that “irrespective of their role, school level, proportion of low income or minority students, or whether the school is urban, suburban or rural,” teachers and principals agree collaboration is essential to student success.

Shared responsibility
Sharing responsibility for student success may require a paradigm shift for teachers and school leaders. Anne Conzemius and Jan O'Neill explain in Building Shared Responsibility for Student Learning that when educators take equal responsibility for student learning, the entire framework of teaching and learning changes. So, what does this new framework look like? First, they explain, educators need to create a loop of focus, reflection, and collaboration.

“Focus creates shared clarity of thought, direction, and purpose. Reflection helps people learn from what they’ve done in the past and identify better ways of accomplishing their goals. Collaboration brings people together to share ideas and knowledge,” Conzemius and O'Neill said. To do this, they added, educators need to really know their stuff. But what does that mean? It means teachers, principals, coaches and all staff need to be learning constantly.

Set high expectations
According to Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools, William H. Parrett and Kathleen Budge found successful schools created a culture of both high expectations and collaboration.

“A toxic atmosphere of low expectations permeates everything in a low-performing school,” they said. “[A] mind-set of high expectations and resulting action often begins with the development of a common vision of what powerful learning looks like for all students and a verbalized belief that every student can and will achieve at high levels and experience other types of success in school.”

When setting high expectations for all students at the board level, consider the following questions:

• What do you want students to learn and be able to do?

• How are you defining success in your district?

• What should collaborative work look like as it moves all students onto the path to success?

Building a collaborative school
In establishing a more collaborative school, leaders must also challenge the problems in the existing one, such as counterproductive policies, fixed mind-sets, ineffective data gathering and management systems, as well as staffing and funding issues, all of which are board-level discussions.

It’s also important to remember that creating a collaborative learning environment requires time, patience and trust. “Collaboration is not easy. Every school and district has its share of the interesting ‘messiness of humanity,’ and sometimes this messiness can overwhelm attempts to achieve an ideal of collaborative harmony and productivity,” Conzemius and O’Neill said. “Still, it’s the process of trying to work together that enables stakeholders to build a strong foundation of collaboration and learning.”

More questions will arise: What is our district’s new mission? What are our values? What is our vision? What inconsistencies currently exist in leadership, instructional strategies, and content knowledge that might hold the team back from success? How does the day need to be restructured to fit a new collaborative framework? And, most importantly, what do we expect from every teacher, every student, every parent, the principal and administrators?

Collaboration takes time, but through effective collaboration, everyone will achieve higher levels of success.

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