I recently had the privilege of traveling to Shanghai to visit schools and meet with educators there. Shanghai, of course, has outperformed all other nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in reading, mathematics, and science by large margins in both 2009 and 2012. One reason Shanghai educators give for their success is their extraordinary system for allowing teachers to collaborate, develop, and study lessons. I was eager to see that for myself.
What I saw did not disappoint. We saw four schools—not the best schools in the city—and in all of them, we had the chance to observe classes and sit in on teachers’ meetings. We saw teachers crowd into classrooms and observe the classes with us, taking copious notes and watching the students’ responses. We then saw them meet with the teacher and provide critiques, offering suggestions. In one school, a low-performing school attended mostly by migrant students, the teachers observing and commenting on the lesson were from a higher-performing school, part of a system known as “empowered management,” designed to engage the existing teaching force to turn around low performance.
The teachers meet weekly in both grade-level and subject-area groups. They also meet in jiaoyanzu, or “teacher research groups.” The work of these groups frequently results in journal publications. A survey found that 75 percent of teachers had at least one publication, and 7.9 percent said they had more than nine publications.
The result of these opportunities was evident in the classes we saw. A third-grade math teacher, for example, skillfully guided students through a lesson on plane coordinates, starting with the concrete—in what row and seat were the students sitting?—and moving to the more abstract—(x,y). She ended up asking the students for examples of how the coordinates might be used in the real world, and the students saw their relevance in theater seats and cities on a map. All in 35 minutes.
I thought of the Shanghai teachers’ experiences recently when I read about a new study that looked at the effects of teacher teams. The study, by researchers at the University of Washington, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University, found that when an effective teacher joins a teacher team, students of all of the teachers in the team improve their mathematics scores. In addition, the study found that when an ineffective teacher joins the team, the other teachers’ students’ performance does not go down. In other words, teacher collaboration benefits all teachers, and all of their students.
As Min Sun, a professor at the University of Washington College of Education and one of the authors of the study, put it, “Student learning is not a function of just one teacher but of the combined effort of many teachers.”
The study’s authors suggest that school leaders should create professional learning communities or other structured opportunities for teachers to collaborate to share instructional ideas and feedback--the kinds of opportunities that are routine in Shanghai.
How can this happen in the United States? A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that the quality of leadership matters. The report, using data from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), a 2013 survey of teachers and principals conducted in 38 countries and other jurisdictions, identified four types of school leaders: administrative leaders, who spend a large portion of their time on school management; educational leaders, who are engaged in instructional leadership but do not do much to engage stakeholders in decisions; inclusive leaders, who do engage staff, parents, and students in decisions but spend less time on curriculum and instruction; and integrated leaders, who combine the qualities of educational leaders and inclusive leaders. These inclusive leaders, the survey found, are most likely to foster professional learning communities. Teachers engage in reflective dialogue and collaboration and have a shared sense of purpose and a focus on student learning.
At a forum to discuss the TALIS findings, Anthony Terrell, the principal of Mt. Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, cautioned that professional learning communities do not just happen; principals and teachers have to work hard to make them effective. “PLC work is much harder than it sounds,” he said.
For one thing, principals have to construct master schedules to carve out time for teachers to meet regularly. And then they have to help ensure that the meetings are productive and focused on improving instruction and learning. “Teachers are good at meeting, but they are not always good at talking about instruction,” he said. “They talk about kids—that’s where it ends. They rarely talk about data, and never talk about interventions.”
In his case, Terrell held the teachers accountable for producing plans in the PLCs by requiring them to present evidence of their work. And it proved effective: student performance at his school has improved.
The results from TALIS confirm Terrell’s experience. The survey did not find a relationship between the conditions for professional learning communities and student performance. That’s because the quality of the learning communities matters. But when it works, students benefit. It’s worth trying to make it work.
The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.