Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Give Teachers Time to Collaborate

By Jennifer Davis — September 14, 2015 6 min read

More than any other investment in education, talented teachers matter most for student success. With the adoption of more-rigorous standards, today’s schools depend more than ever on teachers, to guide and push all students to high achievement while also tailoring instruction to meet individual student needs.

As if these challenges were not steep enough, our education system limits teachers by tying schools to an antiquated schedule—180 six-and-a-half-hour days—that came into existence when expectations for most students were much lower. Enabling all students to develop both the basic and complex skills needed to succeed in today’s economy, as well as to lead fulfilling lives—all within the same school model—seems an impossible task.

But change is on the horizon. Recently, my organization, the National Center on Time & Learning, released an analysis describing the progress of schools with substantially more learning time than the norm, a group that has doubled in just two years. (All research quoted in this essay is available online at www.timeandlearning.org.) Currently, more than 2,000 of these “expanded-time schools” dot the landscape of American education, providing over 1 million children with the equivalent of more than two additional years of school over the course of their K-12 education.

Schools with expanded schedules typically offer opportunities for students—especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds—to get additional support in academics and exposure to a wide range of enrichment activities that build much-needed skills, and that would otherwise be out of reach. The benefits of more learning time should not be underestimated. Significant research has identified more time as one of the most important factors in closing achievement and opportunity gaps.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Yet, often overlooked in gauging the impact of expanded-time schools on student learning is the equally beneficial effect that a longer day and year has on teachers. Within an expanded schedule, teachers typically have many more collaboration and professional-learning opportunities built into their workday. As teachers work together to strengthen their teaching skills, they also can augment instructional practice dramatically, and thus make their time with students even more valuable.

A report that the center released last year, “Time for Teachers,” profiles in sharp detail how 17 high-performing expanded-time schools have designed their school days and weeks with a focus on providing teachers the time they need to plan robust lessons, analyze student-performance data to tailor instruction, and develop new competencies. Not only are these schools giving teachers far more than the average allotment of time for collaborative learning (typically just a few minutes per day), they are also deploying promising models for development to help educators become more effective. As teachers hone their own craft, they ultimately make time in school to deliver on the promise of advancing student learning.

The public Silvia Elementary School in Fall River, Mass., for example, has added 90 minutes to each day with support from a state grant. Its expanded schedule has allowed Silvia teachers to meet in grade-level teams for 45 minutes twice a week—while their students are actively learning in art, music, or gym—to engage in collective lesson-planning. This time is separate from their weekly schoolwide professional development. During the sessions—one devoted to math, the other to English/language arts—teachers share instructional strategies, analyze lesson objectives, and compare student work.

Teachers at Silvia Elementary report they have found this kind of discussion prods them to elevate the rigor of what they are teaching, as they hold not only their students, but also each other, to high expectations. Over the last five years, Silvia has ranked “high growth” in both English/language arts and math each year. It is one of only a small number of schools in the state with such a record.

Research shows that schools with the strongest PLCs … consistently generate higher student performance.”

Teachers can also benefit from regular time together for peer-to-peer learning that does not involve planning specific lessons. At the Preuss Charter High School in La Jolla, Calif., which is ranked the No. 1 high school in San Diego County by U.S. News & World Report, teachers meet once a week for 105 minutes to figure out how to better integrate new curricula aligned with the Common Core State Standards into their classrooms. Teachers model lessons for colleagues, who then offer feedback and discuss how they can incorporate similar teaching strategies into their own subject areas.

Without the expanded schedule, teachers at Preuss say, the school would be hard-pressed to find the time to give them this critical support at a time of transition to the new standards.

Many expanded-time schools also have utilized professional learning communities, or PLCs, in which teachers plan and work through challenges in smaller groups every week while students are in enrichment activities. At Chicago’s Morton School of Excellence, a pre-K-8 Academy for Urban School Leadership school, the PLCs offer time for teachers to troubleshoot and work together to find solutions to problems.

RaStar West, a 4th grade teacher at the Morton School, describes her math and science PLC as “a safe place, not only to collaborate and plan ahead, but also to say, ‘I’m having problems with this, and I need help.’” Teachers at the school have, in turn, helped students more than double their proficiency rate in the last four years, according to Measures of Academic Progress assessment data.

These examples are not anomalies. Research shows that schools with the strongest PLCs, as measured by teachers’ attitudes toward peers and to their own development as educators, consistently generate higher student performance. Moreover, the federal Institute of Education Sciences found that professional development could generate a sizable impact on student performance, but only if teachers invested at least 30 hours in such learning over the course of no more than one year. Spending less time than that yielded no measurable impact on the achievement of their classes.

Yet, despite both anecdotal and concrete evidence that giving teachers more time for dedicated, regular collaboration and learning opportunities can lead to higher student achievement, in most schools they engage in very little of it.

A recent survey by Scholastic reports that teachers have just a few minutes a day for collaborative work. The reasons for this dearth are simple: Time for collaborative teacher development has not been a priority, and the standard school schedule allows little time for teachers to meet during the day. Meanwhile, principals surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group said that lack of time was the most significant obstacle in promoting professional learning, and the 2015 state teachers of the year identified collaborative learning as one of the top three areas school funding should be focused on to promote student learning.

Schools with expanded time can offer a solution. In Massachusetts, teachers at more than 50 expanded-time schools are far likelier than teachers in traditional district schools to report that they have time to collaborate, according to the 2014 TELL MASS Survey. Seventy-eight percent of teachers in expanded-time schools agreed with the statement that “teachers have time available to collaborate with colleagues,” compared with 58 percent of their peers in traditional schools.

To put in place the conditions necessary for these measures to succeed, practitioners and policymakers should take advantage of this unusual moment in the history of education reform—a period when higher learning standards for students are being implemented just as higher expectations for teacher performance are taking shape. One of those conditions is surely for teachers to have more time to work together to strengthen the instructional practices that result in successful schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Give Teachers the Time to Collaborate

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