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Needed: Increased Teacher Synergy

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Following is a post from guest blogger Susan Weston, a Kentucky education consultant who often works with the Prichard Committee:

As a longtime education activist, I have a new working theory about American education. Here it is: our teachers are smart people, and our schools are dumb institutions.

By that, I mean that able people are bringing individual intelligence and creativity and energy into teaching, but being left to work mostly with those individual abilities. They are not getting nearly enough opportunity to deepen their craft by learning from one another. The greatest resource for each teacher should be other teachers, and that resource is barely being tapped.

It's almost as though, after the 19th century relied on isolated one-room school houses, the 20th century made larger schools by stacking those rooms side by side, but organized the work so that that teachers stay nearly as separated by walls and doors as they had been earlier by miles and mountains.

Look, we have plenty of evidence that kids are capable of learning at substantially higher levels if their teachers work in noticeable, different ways. The key differences involve consistent analysis of the work students produce, working with colleagues to understand what students have learned and using that evidence to plan the next steps in students learning. One set of research calls this approach "assessment for learning" or "formative assessment," emphasizing how the shared work is done. Another discussion calls the approach "professional learning communities," putting the attention on who does the work together.

And yet, American schools are still largely organized to make those kinds of interactions and growth nearly impossible. Professional development time is brief, fragmented, and frequently devoted more to handing down information than to working together to develop and apply new insights. Planning periods are broken up by endless demands for plans and reports and by the rush to get ready to serve students again in a few minutes. Principals' observations are far too often always quick, rare, and focused on judging teachers rather than helping them grow.

The longer I look, the more I think that isolation is the deep failure slowing down American public education. We have an increasingly clear idea of what we want for twenty-first century students, but we still need to match that with an equally clear image of a twenty-first century t eaching profession: one in which teachers strengthen each other in order to strengthen the kids they serve.

Put another way, we largely have the right individuals teaching our children--and doing it with close to the best individual skill and commitment they can bring. What we don't have is the right synergy among those individuals. Quite to the contrary, our schools make that synergy nearly impossible, and that's a crucial reason that growth for students seems so much slower than our hopes.

David Cook wrote last week that American schools aren't so much broken as designed to produce the wrong results. I agree, and I think the key design mistake is that current schools are designed to isolate teachers from one another and prevent collaborative analysis, shared strategies, and systematic teamwork to improve student learning.

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