Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Students Going Further: Teachers Should Be Growing Together

| Post by Susan Perkins Weston |

Teachers are smart people and schools are dumb institutions.

That’s the short version of my biggest new idea of the last five years. The first part is a short way of firmly stating respect for the talent, study, and judgment Kentucky teachers bring to their work. The second part is a short way of pointing out how our schools (and those all over the country) are set up to make it hard for those teacher capacities to deliver all they could for students.

Especially, it’s a way of pointing out a central folly of American education: separating teachers from one another for nearly all of nearly every working day. That structure means the skill and insight growing in each classroom is set up stay in that one classroom, and never move next door or across the hall. Other professionals organize their work so they can “get smarter off of each other,” but the default structure of Kentucky schools and American schools more broadly makes that transfer and synthesis difficult and unlikely.

There are efforts underway to amend the unhealthy pattern, including these:
  • Professional learning communities, at their best, commit serious time for teachers to convene on a regular basis to analyze standards and student work and plan cycles of instructional improvement, with each meeting being able to consider new results and further refinements. 
  • Kentucky’s new Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES) calls for much more thoughtful teacher observation, including peer observation, leading to truly useful discussions about how to deepen the work.
  • Careful schedule design can create common planning time by grade or subject.
Those are all good but small steps in the right direction.

We need bigger steps. Based on what Kentucky teachers have told me over the last 26 years and on every account I read on how Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and now Canada are moving forward, I conclude that student opportunity cannot be changed in the needed big ways without changing teacher opportunity at least as much.

Specifically, for teachers to dig in deeply and steadily on figuring out major change, they need major time in big chunks, on the order of a day every week or every other week.

With that scale of time, teachers can share the deep innovation efforts. They can move from hearing about a big way they could change teaching to trying it and then refining it, including figuring out why first and second efforts didn’t seem to succeed as fully as expected, and how to make third and fourth rounds increasingly robust. They can exchange ideas, so that one teacher’s insight becomes part of the shared toolkit of an entire team. They can puzzle through what’s happening with particular students and what changes will help those individual learners flourish.

Without that scale of time for professionals to work through innovations, our schools are stuck in a continuous loop of knowing big change could work and seeing it not quite get to lift off and lasting orbit.

The student results we see now come close to our teachers’ individual best under exhausting and isolating circumstances. What we should want and work for is something close their collaborative best in more sustaining and supportive environments.

Source note: My main image of the needed revolution in time use comes from Marilyn Crawford’s tenacious work on school schedules that find the time for deeper work,  and my understanding of its importance flows from steady comparative reading about teaching in other countries, with special respect for the 2007 McKinsey report on “How The World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out On Top.” 

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