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What Do Teachers and Research Say About Teaching in the Era of School Reform?

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This post is by Nathan Barrett, Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (@era_nola).

How often do you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to see things from a different perspective? If you're like me, not as much as you'd like or probably should. Recently, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans hosted a one-day conference, The Teaching Profession in the Era of School Reform, which encouraged educators, policymakers, and researchers to do just that. Bringing people together from different backgrounds to gain perspective and address complex issues is not a new idea, but a collaborative approach may not be the first that comes to mind when it comes to school reform and education policies that are often addressed divisively in media outlets. However, the recent emergence of research-practice partnerships and a growing number of stakeholders who are willing to come to the table to share and listen is helping to change this.

The conference's opening session on teacher preparation and retention provided panelists with an opportunity to discuss a good example of such collaboration in practice, the Norman C. Francis Teacher Residency. The residency is a partnership between Xavier University and five New Orleans charter management organizations, and it provides an avenue for local college graduates to pursue a teaching career via a one-year apprenticeship and two years of graduate coursework at Xavier. This endeavor is the first partnership of its kind, and it was sparked by a collaborative conversation between panelist Dr. Renee Akbar, the Chair of Xavier's Division of Education and Counseling, and New Orleans school leaders who came together to discuss how to get more local college graduates at the front of the classroom in New Orleans publicly funded schools.

The teacher evaluation session brought together district and school leaders, a researcher, and an education consultant to discuss the delicate balance between all the things we want evaluation to do. Panelists agreed that these objectives can compete with one another, so evaluation across schools can mean many different things. Even autonomous charter schools must operate under the state evaluation system, and the use of evaluation for summative assessments can interfere with administrators' desires to provide formative feedback for teachers to improve instruction. But with the help of local non-profits and other stakeholders, many schools have focused on improving coaching and mentoring in schools to address specific professional development needs of their teachers.

Our panel on teachers' unions and tenure also featured an important discussion about a highly divisive issue. The panel's participants included researchers, a national union representative, and a local teachers' union leader. What became evident from the discussion is that unionizing and collective bargaining in charter schools is an amorphous process that can be influenced by a number of factors, and it can be friendly or contentious. But what stood out to me was that contracts across schools seem to vary, suggesting that school-level collective bargaining is responsive to the needs of the school, but as a system this approach requires more time and energy since each school has its own bargaining process which can take years.  

The final panel addressed teacher working conditions and included two school leaders and a teacher. One of the themes that emerged is that strong leadership helps shape how teachers view their work environment, and this is consistent with research. While schools may use different strategies--such as retirement benefits, school-wide days off during the school year for healthcare, parking spots, and even simply remembering staff birthdays--many school leaders are constantly looking for new and better ways to improve the working conditions for teachers. As the discussion revealed, it is not uncommon for leaders to reach out to one another and to the education community at-large to see what they are doing and where they've found success.

Reflecting on the conference, I've never been more convinced that the most promising avenue to improving education for students is one that encourages more collaboration between stakeholders who have different perspectives and/or expertise. Working together across sectors, by nature, helps all stakeholders--researchers included--move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to discussing critical issues. Since context matters, we must be more flexible and less wedded to any one particular set of ideals or approaches.

It's clear that the New Orleans community cares about teachers and what's happening in schools. We had over 70 attendees at the conference and another 500+ watching online. I'm hopeful that events like these will continue to encourage collaborative approaches to addressing critical issues in our schools, and as stakeholders continue to build these relationships, we will see continuous collaboration that increases the opportunities and outcomes for our students.

For all of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans' latest studies on teacher-related topics, visit our website.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice 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.

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