Professional Development

Why Aren’t Schools Giving Teachers More Collaboration Time?

By Ross Brenneman — August 14, 2014 3 min read
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Tens of thousands of teachers go to big conferences and conventions every year for professional development. They watch webinars, too. They take part in Twitter chats. They try out ed camps and unconferences. Sometimes, teachers even get the benefit of in-school PD.

But routinely, teachers attest to the fact that they like having the chance to just sit down with their peers and learn from each other. And it’s increasingly apparent that many don’t have such opportunities.

The Education Week Research Center published a new survey today that helps support that idea. My colleague Catherine Gewertz has a full rundown over at Curriculum Matters, but I’m going to hone in on one thing here: In the survey of 500 educators about common-core readiness, this was a standout statistic:

Eighty-seven percent of teachers trust the opinions of other teachers when it comes to curriculum selection. That compares to a 65 percent favorability rating for independent panels of experts, and only 38 percent for curriculum providers and publishers. The survey is small (it’s not necessarily nationally representative), but that’s a pretty strong majority.

Teachers generally like to trust and learn from each other. This is not a newsflash.

In a survey on digital gaming released in June, for example, nearly half of teachers said that word-of-mouth from fellow teachers drove their purchasing habits, a number far outstripping media reviews.

Education Week Teacher just published an article of mine on how those aforementioned education conferences keep up with the times, and many of those interviewed hit on the same themes of collaboration and learning from other teachers in determining their PD.

“My favorite thing is having teachers or administrators that are in the trenches, come back and tell me what’s worked for them,” said Wanda Shelton, the superintendent of Lincoln County schools, in Tennessee. “What probably is my least favorite thing is having people who probably left 20 or 30 years ago come back and talk to me about what might work. I want to see what’s actually working on the ground.”

Shelton is certainly not alone, yet despite an evidently strong teacher interest in collaboration, schools frequently do not provide the time. In an interview with Hechinger Report, Elizabeth Greene, author of the hot new book Building a Better Teacher, discusses how high-achieving school districts invest their teachers’ time, and it’s not in activities tied to teacher evaluation:

When you look at school networks—especially charters that have good results on standardized tests—they just invest a lot less in [evaluating teachers] than in training. ... How much did we invest in this relative to other things that we could be doing to help teachers learn to do their job better—such as time in the day to spend with colleagues who know what they are talking about or professional development that focused on how to teach well?

And as Rick Hess pointed out in a February 2013 blog post, a lot of schools think professional development stems from quick-hit workshops imbued with PowerPoints. (A lot of people really don’t like PowerPoint.)

The most damning recent study of professional development, though, comes from a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The results, published in June, show that roughly half of teachers internationally don’t get time to try co-teaching or even just observe peers teach.

Further research shows that teachers find too much of their time devoted to testing, and reducing such time could improve the amount allocated to PD. But where the time for PD does exist, many schools seem to have a discrepancy between what teachers want and what teachers get.

Does your school offer enough chances for collaboration? If so, how do they work it into the schedule? If not, why?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.