Teacher collaboration and professional learning communities are frequently mentioned in articles and reports on school improvement. Schools and teachers benefit in a variety of ways when teachers work together. A small but growing body of evidence suggests a positive relationship between teacher collaboration and student achievement.
Teacher collaboration benefits schools and staff
In 2006, RAND researcher Cassandra Guarino and associates analyzed federal Schools and Staffing Surveys. They found lower turnover rates among beginning teachers in schools with induction and mentoring programs that emphasized collegial support.
Researcher Ken Futernick (2007), after surveying 2,000 current and former teachers in California, concluded that teachers felt greater personal satisfaction when they believed in their own efficacy, were involved in decision making, and established strong collegial relationships.
Leaders can help low-performing schools tap into the power of collaboration. In Tennessee, school performance coaches receive specialized training to facilitate improvements in low-performing schools and districts. Helping teachers collaborate in meaningful ways is part of the work. When a coach is assigned to a school that is struggling, the first step may be to increase the level of trust among staff. As coaches bring teachers together to examine data and work on specific goals, teachers usually begin to feel less alone, more supported and more capable of collectively tackling the “big issues” that must be addressed if the school is to make progress. School leaders undermine teacher trust when they give verbal support to collaboration but fail to provide the time and resources for teachers to work together. To be effective, teacher teams may need changes in scheduling, access to student data, professional development and other forms of support. – Steven Moats.
School leaders who foster collaboration among novice and veteran teachers can improve teacher retention and teacher satisfaction, according to studies conducted by Susan Kardos and Susan Moore Johnson. They have found that new teachers seem more likely to stay in schools that have an “integrated professional culture” in which new teachers’ needs are recognized and all teachers share responsibility for student success.
Yet this is not the norm, according to their survey of a representative sample of 486 first- and second-year K12 teachers in California, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan. One-half (in California and Michigan) to two-thirds (in Florida and Massachusetts) said they plan and teach alone. Fewer than half reported that teachers in their school share responsibility for all students.
Even California’s state-funded mentoring program did not guarantee that new teachers got the support they wanted or needed. The researchers suggest that school leaders foster a sense of shared responsibility, engage veteran teachers in the induction of new teachers and in their own professional growth, and earmark resources to support collaborative planning, mentoring, and classroom observations.
Increasing student achievement
Upon reviewing the literature, researchers Yvonne Goddard, Roger Goddard and Megan Taschannen-Moran (2007) reported “a paucity of research investigating the extent to which teachers’ collaborative school improvement practices are related to student achievement.” Most existing research is in the form of surveys and case studies, which do not provide evidence of cause-and-effect relationships.
To investigate the issue, Goddard and colleagues conducted a study in a large urban school district in the Midwest. First, the researchers surveyed 452 teachers in 47 elementary schools to determine the extent to which they worked collectively to influence decisions related to school improvement, curriculum and instruction, and professional development. To determine the relationship between teacher collaboration and student achievement, the researchers used reading and math achievement scores for 2,536 fourth-graders, controlling for school context and student characteristics such as prior achievement. They found a positive relationship between teacher collaboration and differences among schools in mathematics and reading achievement.
Goddard and colleagues say further studies are needed on collaborative practices but that their study provides preliminary support for efforts to improve student achievement by promoting teacher collaboration around curriculum, instruction and professional development.
Additional support for collaboration is found in a 2008 practice guide from the U.S. Department of Education. The guide, “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools,” cites teacher collaboration as a frequent approach to improving instruction in 35 chronically low-performing schools that achieved dramatic turnarounds (substantial gains in student achievement within three years).
Case studies examined by IES show that teacher collaboration took many forms. In some schools, teachers met in teams to review student work against standards, using their insights to select targets for instructional improvement. In other schools, teachers shared planning time, learned about data to guide instructional decision making, and got regular support from a coach or lead teacher. Some teachers formed teams to plan their own professional development and ensure that lessons were aligned across grade levels.
In the case studies examined by IES, administrators fostered teacher collaboration by providing pedagogic and structural supports. Large schools in particular found it necessary to create mechanisms and supports for collaboration. In schools that adjusted their schedules to create common planning time, teachers found it especially useful to have a designated day, time and agenda for their meetings. In some cases, however, teachers needed technical assistance from outside facilitators or district staff to make effective use of common planning time.”
Other leadership actions that nurture school turnarounds include (1) sending a clear signal that dramatic change is urgently needed, (2) maintaining a consistent focus on improving instruction, (3) making visible improvements quickly, and (4) building a staff that is committed to the school’s improvement goals.
Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofit education research and development organization. Steven Moats of Edvantia directs the Tennessee Exemplary Educators Program. The program received a Harvard Innovations in American Government Award in 2007. This article was originally published in Sept., 2008.
Futernick, K. (2007). A possible dream: Retaining California teachers so all students learn. Sacramento: California State University.
Goddard, Y. L., Goddard, R. D., Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877-896.
Guarino, C. M., Santibanez, L., & Daley, G. A. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 173-208.
Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Greene, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., & Darwin, M. (2008). Turning around chronically low-performing schools: A practice guide (NCEE #2008-4020). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
Kardos, S. M., & Johnson, S. M. (2007). On their own and presumed expert: New teachers’ experience with their colleagues. Teachers College Record, 109(9), 2083-2106.