Published Online: February 17, 2010

Educator Teamwork Seen as Key to School Gains

Most principals and teachers say they believe creating school environments that allow educators to work together more would have a “major impact” on improving the chances for student success, according to a new national survey by MetLife Inc. But the specific methods and amount of time currently allowed for such collaboration among educators vary widely from school to school, the poll found.

The 2009 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Collaborating for Student Success,” which will be released in three parts over the next two months, examines the views of teachers, principals, and students about their respective roles, responsibilities, and priorities in schools today. The first part of the survey, released today and titled “Effective Teaching and Leadership,” examines teachers’ and principals' views on what collaboration looks like in schools and what impact it has. (The MetLife Foundation provides funding to Teacher to support interactive professional community among classroom educators.)

The results were based on a national telephone survey of 1,003 K-12 public school teachers, 500 K-12 public school principals, and an online survey of 1,018 public school students in grades 3 to 12 conducted in fall 2009. In addition, public school principals and teachers, and thought leaders in education participated in an online strategy session to inform the development of the survey.

Collaborative Time

Sixty-seven percent of teachers and 78 percent of principals surveyed said more collaboration among teachers and school leaders would have a “major impact” on student achievement. Initiatives to create more collaborative approaches to instruction have been widely discussed in recent years. The potential benefits of greater collaboration among educators, according to some observers, are a better school climate, greater career satisfaction for educators, and higher retention of qualified teachers and administrators. Yet for some educators, collaboration may raise concerns about dilution of individual accountability, infringement on independence in the classroom, or a lack of clear management hierarchies or responsibilities, the report said.

Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, said he was encouraged by the survey results because they showed that teachers realize the value of collaboration to the future of the field.

“Teamwork is the key to success to every organization in today’s economy,” Carroll said. “We have to stop asking teachers to do one of the hardest jobs and do it alone. Every school needs good teachers. They don’t become great until the teachers join forces. Collaboration needs to be built into their work. We need to be opening the doors to the classroom, working across disciplines. Principals need to work with their teachers to organize the day in the school so teachers have that time built in.”

A Matter of Trust

Nearly all teachers already participate in some form of collaborative activity at their school, but only for a limited amount of time. On average, teachers spent 2.7 hours a week on structured collaborative activities, with 24 percent of teachers spending more than three hours a week on such activities, the survey found.

A related study published last year by the National Staff Development Council found that teachers in the United States have far less time for non-teaching, professional-enrichment activities than their counterparts in high-achieving foreign countries.

According to the MetLife survey, the most frequent types of collaboration among U.S. teachers and school leaders are: teachers meeting in teams to learn how to help their students achieve at higher levels; school leaders sharing responsibility with teachers to achieve school goals; and beginning teachers working with more experienced teachers. The activity reported least frequently was teachers observing one another in the classroom and providing feedback. Less than one-third of teachers or principals report that this happens frequently at their school, the survey said.

Types of Collaboration

Elementary schools are more collaborative than secondary schools, but educators report significant variations in the presence and frequency of such practices at both levels.

Schools that are collaborative, meanwhile, seem to have better morale than other schools, according to the MetLife report. Educators in schools with higher levels of collaboration are more likely to agree that the teachers, principal, and other professionals trust each other. Teachers in such schools are also more likely to say that they and their colleagues share responsibility for the achievement of all students and are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

In general, collaboration leads to greater professional satisfaction for teachers, said Linda Davin, a senior policy analyst in the National Education Association's teacher quality department.

“We are told often by teachers who are part of strong professional learning communities that they feel less isolated, more supported in their day-to-day work, and experience an increased sense of confidence and job satisfaction,” Ms. Davin said. “In the same way that doctors engage in consultation and lawyers discuss case law and watch each other try cases, teachers need to be able to consult colleagues, discuss complex teaching challenges, reflect on their professional practice, and share what works. These professional conversations are critical in assisting teachers to engage students in their learning.”

Student Perspectives

Students have a role in collaboration as well, the survey noted. Eighty percent of teachers and 89 percent of principals said they believe students feeling responsible and accountable for their own education would have a major impact on improving student achievement.

There was a disconnect, however, between the views of students and educators. While fewer than half of teachers (42 percent) said they believe all or most of their students have a sense of responsibility for their education, 96 percent of students across grade levels said they believe they have the responsibility to pay attention and do the work it takes to succeed in school.

By the same token, most teachers strongly agree that they share responsibility for the achievement of all students and set high standards for them. But only half of students strongly agree that all of the teachers in their school want them to succeed, the survey said.

Part two of the report is scheduled to be released March 8 and will address how collaboration relates to student goals and academic achievement and teacher expectations. The third and final part of the report, due in late March, will focus on collaboration in the context of addressing teachers' professional growth, experience levels, and career paths.

The initial part of the report notes that capturing teachers views on issues such as collaboration and school climate is “particularly important” in light of a finding that 69 percent of the teachers surveyed feel their voices are not heard in the debate on education reform.

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