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Collective Capacity - A Consistent Theme of High Performers

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By Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, Assistant to the President for Educational Issues, American Federation of Teachers

Last week in New York City, the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession brought together education ministers and teachers union leaders from 24 nations considered high performing or rapidly improving based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The planners assembled an impressive array of expert teacher leaders, teacher educators, and policymakers to address this year's theme of Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders. For those who thrive on food for thought, there was a lot to chew on.

Sure, there's an array of differences among the PISA performers — from governmental structure, to economic status, to system size, to demographic diversity — to name a few. But the commonalities in approach were far more informative than the differences in context. On the heels of the International Summit and having recently returned from an AFT study visit to Singapore, China, and Japan, there is one commonality that really stood out in the systematic improvement approaches these countries take: collective capacity.

It's no surprise that high performers place good teaching at the core of system success. What is striking, though, is that these nations see teaching capacity as neither as a finite resource nor an individual commodity. While individual skill is important, it is the notion of collective capacity that supports results for students and drives a continuous improvement cycle for educators. In his 2010 book, All Systems Go, Michael Fullan called collective capacity a hidden resource that "generates the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching."

At the Beacon Primary School in Singapore, the principal and teachers proudly showed us a publication that was the result of their collaborative practitioner research. They spoke of "white space" that allows teachers to come together regularly by both department and grade level. At Tampines Primary School, also in Singapore, staff members told us that peer discussion is highly valued and that at every level of the system — school, cluster, and nation — that are periodic opportunities for sharing effective practice and supporting colleagues in the learning challenges they are addressing

In Shanghai, at the very high performing #2 Secondary School, teachers told our AFT delegation that they use collaborative planning time to "really talk about teaching and learning," that training is ongoing even for experienced teachers, and that teachers open their classes to their colleagues. At Zhabei #8 Middle School, also in Shanghai, the vice principal was more specific: "We want our teachers to be team players," she said, noting that bonuses are team-based rather than awarded to individual teachers. In China, the expectations of collective capacity are high, with formalized structures and processes enabling school and teacher leaders from successful schools to collaborate in supporting the turnaround of chronically low performing schools.

In Japan, we were reminded that Lesson Study is a 110 year old tradition. It is an intensely collaborative form of professional development where a group of teachers develop a lesson, observe and critique one of the group teaching it, refine the lesson, and repeat the cycle. Members of the teacher team are, at once, honing a lesson, deepening their collective understanding of good practice, and addressing a specific research question.

American researcher Carrie Leana studies social capital — the interactions among teachers in a given school — and has shown that it can be a powerful predictor of student achievement. Human capital alone — the knowledge, skills, and training an individual teacher brings — can change a classroom, but lifting a whole school requires collective capacity.

Lastly, it's worth noting that high performing systems feature another form of collective capacity: teachers belong to unions, and unions and management/government collaborate as a matter of course. Looking at how high performing and rapidly improving nations get and stay there, it is tempting to focus on the respect and esteem in which teachers are held, on investments in thorough academic and clinical preparation, or on accountability where professionals are responsible to each other rather than to a top-down system. These are all important, especially since teaching quality requires systemic improvement, rather than a single strategy. But also important are the conditions and expectations under which teachers work every day — conditions that foster the notion that such a high stakes and complex enterprise requires collective effort along with individual excellence. I hope that's a lesson we all take from the growing international comparison knowledge base.

AFT was one of the sponsoring organizations of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2012.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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