Research Underscores Collaboration's Impact
Learning Forward's work has long emphasized the role of effective collaboration in improving educator practices and student results. The idea is embedded in our beliefs and explicit in the Standards for Professional Learning, where the Learning Communities standard states: "Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment" (Learning Forward, 2011).
Mounting evidence not only confirms the value of effective collaboration but also details what it looks like. For example, Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, released earlier this year, explores what contributes to effective collaborative learning. The study examines four high-performing education systems and finds that continuous improvement depends on particular factors, including time for job-embedded learning and clear roles for education leaders in facilitating collaborative learning.
A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute takes our understanding of the value of effective collaboration another step further.
The report, Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research, finds that, by and large, teachers become more effective at their jobs the longer they teach. The report draws on 30 recent research studies to highlight key findings and make policy recommendations.
Among the findings, the report says that "teachers make greater gains in their effectiveness when they work in a supportive and collegial working environment" -- which includes the leadership of a strong principal, opportunities for collaboration, and a shared vision for student achievement.
Several policy recommendations conclude the report, including: "Create conditions for strong collegial relationships among school staff and a positive and professional working environment." The report stresses the promise of principal career pathways and particular attention to scheduling.
The Learning Policy Institute study comes at a time when educators at the state and district level are creating plans to use federal funds within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) aligned with the Department of Education's draft regulations for ESSA implementation.
To leverage the latest knowledge about supporting educator growth through ESSA, Learning Forward recommends that states and systems:
- Ensure that professional learning aligns with the definition of professional learning in ESSA, which specifies that learning be "sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused." Such learning is most successful in the collegial culture the Learning Policy Institute study recommends and, at the same time, will contribute to creating such a culture.
- Plan all learning to support a coherent vision for student and adult learning. Educators are accustomed to using Title II funds to support particular programmatic efforts, often fragmented and unconnected to a larger plan for improvement. When states and districts begin with an overriding vision for systemwide improvement, professional learning goals and priorities are easier to identify.
- Identify the intended impact of any learning along with the data and evidence that will help educators know if they are achieving their goals. Not only does ESSA require evidence connected to its implementation, but schools and systems will find it more manageable to shift cultures and habits when they know how well such shifts contribute to ongoing success.
Studies such as Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research are exceedingly valuable in understanding the difference that collaborative learning cultures makes. Let's not lose any opportunity to benefit from that understanding.
Learning Forward. (2011). Standards for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH: Author.