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Competition Can't Beat Collaboration

The MetLife Survey of the [North] American Teacher was released last week, and it holds some fresh reminders of the chasm between teachers and the prevalent education reform agenda.

First of all, according to many reformers, we need financial incentives to force teachers to take responsibility for the performance of their students. The grievances teachers have lodged against the unfairness inherent in the punishments meted out by NCLB have been widely interpreted as a disavowal of this responsibility. However, according to the MetLife survey, 80% of teachers "strongly agree that the teachers in a school share responsibility for the achievement of all students."

But the most striking finding of the survey is the following:

Teachers and principals in schools with higher levels of collaboration are more likely than others to strongly agree that teachers in a school share responsibility for the achievement of all students and that greater collaboration among teachers and school leaders would have a major impact on improving student achievement. Teachers in higher collaboration schools are also more likely to strongly agree that other teachers contribute to their success.
Most striking is the higher level of trust in more collaborative schools. Overall, half of teachers (51%) and 71% of principals strongly agree that the teachers, principal and other professionals trust each other at their school. However, those in schools with higher levels of collaboration are more likely to strongly agree that this level of trust exists (teachers: 69% vs. 42%; principals: 78% vs. 60%). Furthermore, teachers in schools with higher levels of collaboration are more likely to be very satisfied with teaching as a career (68% vs. 54%).
This finding resonates deeply with me. In the eighteen years I spent teaching at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, by far the most satisfying thing we did was to build a strong collaborative community of science and math teachers there. We spent several years reflecting on our practice together, having experienced teachers coach and support novices, and working on assessment practices. We expanded this work into a district-wide curriculum project that involved dozens of teacher leaders from across the district. We are continuing our work in this vein through our TeamScience mentoring program, which likewise brings experienced teachers together with novices to move our instruction forward. This week our mentors spent time looking carefully at student work, preparing to do this with the new teachers they work with.
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We find scarce funds to pay these mentors for their time, but that is not what drives this collaboration. We are motivated by the same thing that drew us to teach in these challenging schools in the first place - a deep concern for the well-being of our students. We want to collaborate, to share, to support one another and COOPERATE.

So why is it that the central metaphor for education reform has become a competitive race?

Race to the Top has been defined as a competition - starting with its name, and in the means by which states "win" the rivalry for the best and most innovative grant proposals.

The most trendy innovations focus on strategies that reward individual teachers for their performance - or punish them for their students' low scores. Once again, competition is supposed to drive reform.

Charter schools, which offer educators a worthwhile opportunity to innovate, have been touted as forcing public schools to compete for students and tax dollars. Unfortunately, although some are outstanding, they have not yielded the results that were predicted, and recent reports indicate there are huge obstacles that are likely to prevent them from scaling up to meet the promises that are being made for them.

The central innovation of which the Duncan administration is most proud is that it has replaced the clumsy stick wielded by the Bush administration with the clever carrot of one-time funding.

Teachers may be disinclined to compete with one another, but leaders at the state departments of education have had no qualms about doing whatever it takes to please the master dangling the carrot.

It is probably not a coincidence that this overwhelming drive to compete comes at a time when corporations have assumed a huge influence over education policy. This influence comes in three forms. First of all, corporations control large parts of the public discourse through ownership and editorial control of the media. This could be seen rather clumsily last week when Dean Millot was censored for raising questions about the integrity of the Race to the Top process. It is also seen in the general slant of most coverage of education issues, which widely embraces the condemnation of public schools as abject failures. Secondly, corporations have greatly disproportionate influence over our elected officials, through the legalized bribery system of campaign donations. This has been expanded recently by the Supreme Court decision rendering free speech rights to corporations. Lastly, corporate philanthropists such as Bill Gates have figured out that strategic investments of millions of dollars can powerfully swing public policies, redirecting billions of public dollars in the desired direction.

I am not one who believes this is all about corporations trying to make money off the public schools. I think Bill Gates and many of the others supporting these efforts genuinely believe their outlook will result in better outcomes for students. Most of these guys have tons of money and they do not need to make a buck this way.

But that doesn't mean their perspective is going to work in our schools.

Corporations are driven by the need to compete for profit. Success is achieved when we outsmart our rivals in the marketplace, when we work harder, innovate, and compete to win. It is not surprising that when people successful in this field turn their minds over to the task of improving schools, they apply the lessons they have learned in their work.

They accuse teachers of resisting their solutions because we are selfish and lazy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The solutions we seek are not selfish, but are based in our ethics of cooperation and mutual benefit. We want to expand learning for all of our students, by working to support one another through collaboration, not competition. We are not seeking to prove that we are better than our rival teachers, to eke out an extra thousand dollar bonus for better test scores. We do not want to set up selective schools that take the academic cream off the top of the public schools. We are choosing to work in these public schools not because it is an easy road. Anyone who walks in a teacher's shoes will know this profession is not for slackers.

Rather than fighting against this deep-seated ethical grain, education reformers must learn to work with it. We need reforms that expand the time teachers have to collaborate, to compare student work, to share lessons and reflect on how well they worked. Our schools are often compared unfavorably to those in Finland and elsewhere. But those schools do not rely on merit pay to motivate teacher performance. They DO give teachers significantly more time to collaborate and learn together.

The spirit of innovation and creativity inspired by the desire to compete and excel is a productive part of our culture. Good teachers tap into these impulses to build motivation among their students. There should be ways that great teachers are recognized and rewarded - this mustn't be an all or nothing battle. But we need a greater balance in the direction we pursue, and the desire among teachers to learn together should be recognized as the powerful force for improvement that it is.

What do you think? Is competition a useful driver of school reform? Or do we need more emphasis on collaboration?

photo by Anthony Cody

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