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Why Is Collaboration So Controversial?

Over the past few weeks, the educational policy conversation has been circling the familiar topic of teacher collaboration. Both The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic have recently published articles that advocate for increased collaborative time for teachers to develop their skills and learn how to skillfully implement Common Core. The article in the  New York Times Magazine, written by  Elizabeth Green, provides an introduction to topics she explores in her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works. Green argues that teachers need more time to refine and perfect their instructional strategies and that the success or failure of Common Core may depend largely on whether or not teachers get that time.

Green's article is equal parts statistics and storytelling, and it presents a compelling case. Teachers all over the country are carving out time between classes, after school, and late at night to do the type of collaborative work that breathes new life into her work. Anyone who's experienced quality collaboration with colleagues knows how powerful it is.  

Green is not without her detractors, however. Math and science teacher of 30 years, Robert Berkman, took issue with Green's descriptions of ineffective math instruction. His key issue with her argument is that she uses data sloppily and overstates the significance of the tests she cites. Berkman definitely has a point, but I think he misses the larger one. His focus on defending U.S. math educators overlooks the fact that Green's proposal for increased collaboration time would benefit teachers even if everything happening in American math classes was stellar. Berkman hints that he agrees with that idea, but shies away from expressing his support outright, preferring to focus his writing on conflict, rather than areas of agreement. In rushing to condemn the article based on poor use of data, he misses the opportunity to offer support for a policy that would probably help teachers.

However, there's also been support for Green's call for increased collaborative time. In the Atlantic article, teacher Sarah Mosle also takes the time to share her own experience with a collaborative protocol known as lesson study. Mosle's explanation of its why it failed to work in her school is heartbreaking in its familiarity:

"As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff's professional development at a school where I've worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports--had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn't work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn't time in American teachers' workday for this kind of collaborative enterprise."

This is where I get a knot in my stomach. Anyone who's worked in a school has probably seen a policy that's been developed without attention paid to implementation or without the input of those directly affected by the policy. Collaboration isn't just for teachers; it needs to be for policymakers, school leaders, teachers and parents.

I agree wholeheartedly with increasing time for teacher support and development and I think it's wonderful that the conversation about increased collaboration is gaining traction. But my inner cynic worries that the high financial cost of giving teachers more time to plan will be a non-starter. Cash-strapped state budgets are unlikely to add on expensive new initiatives that would provide teachers with more time to plan, reflect, and adjust. I can only hope that state lawmakers who profess to be focused on education stand up for teachers and realize that we can't fire our way to excellent education system for all children. Instead we need to support and develop our existing teachers and invest time and money in teacher created instructional support models.   

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