The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why collaboration is vital to creating effective schools

By Greg Anrig

A great irony is emerging from the prolonged “education wars” between teachers unions and supporters of market-based reforms that rely heavily on motivating school personnel by threatening them: The low-income districts and schools that have demonstrated the greatest improvement in student outcomes are generally characterized by deep collaboration between administrators and teachers.

It is becoming increasingly evident that conflict over reform in itself has been impeding educational progress—quantifiable progress that has been achieved in settings where educators have managed to move beyond unproductive battles.

Recent research examining efforts to enhance collaboration in districts and schools strongly indicates that purposefully building trust works. Studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the National Center for Educational Achievement (a division of the firm that develops the ACT college admission tests) bear this out, as do the examples of the Cincinnati, Union City, New Jersey, and Springfield, Massachusetts public school districts. The weight of this accumulating evidence suggests that it is time to reverse course from the ineffective reliance on the coercive “sticks” that have dominated education policymaking to a new set of approaches that would promote effective teamwork and intensively collaborative practices.

Researchers have long tried to identify what makes effective schools tick, but only in recent years have their methodologies become sophisticated enough to provide concrete, actionable insights. What is especially exciting about these studies is that they have reached very similar conclusions while examining the question in different ways in varied settings.

The most rigorous of these studies was conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which gathered demographic and testing data from 1990 through 2005 on more than 400 Chicago elementary schools while also conducting extensive surveys of stakeholders in those schools to gain information about their institutional practices. By using advanced statistical methods, the consortium was able to determine with a high degree of reliability the organizational characteristics and processes that can predict whether a school is likely to show above average improvement in student test scores.

Led by Anthony S. Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the consortium’s overarching finding was that the most effective schools had developed an unusually high degree of “relational trust” among its stakeholders. In particular, it identified five organizational features of schools that it deemed to be central to advancing student achievement:

1. a coherent instructional guidance system, in which the curriculum, study materials, pedagogical strategies, and assessments are coordinated within and across grades with meaningful teacher input;

2. an effective system to improve professional capacity, including making teachers’ classroom work public for examination by colleagues and external consultants to  enable ongoing support and guidance to teachers;

3. strong parent-community-school ties, which closely integrate the network of people focused on enabling each student to learn;

4. a student-centered learning climate that identifies and responds to particular difficulties any child may be encountering; and

5. leadership focused on cultivating a growing cadre of stakeholders (teachers, parents, and community members) who become invested in sharing overall responsibility for the school’s improvement.

These pillars of successful schools may sound somewhat abstract and unrealistic to bring about in schools that are dysfunctional. But other research and case studies affirm the consortium’s conclusions while adding concrete detail about actual practices and strategies that have effectively produced positive results even after conditions had reached rock bottom.

For example, the National Center for Educational Achievement sent teams of researchers to 26 public schools with a high proportion of low-income students in five states, where students were beating the odds on math and science tests over a three-year period. Among the common practices they found in those schools: teachers are actively involved in developing  and selecting instructional materials, assessments and pedagogical strategies; collaboration time among teachers focused on sharing ideas for improving instruction is embedded in the workweek, with  a broad recognition of the importance of breaking out of self-contained classes;  teachers are open to being observed and advised; administrators and teachers focus closely on monitoring testing data, not as a cudgel to evoke fear, but as a diagnostic tool to identify areas where students are struggling so they can receive additional support; and schools conduct unusually extensive and systematic outreach to parents and community groups.

It is important to note that research in other institutional settings has also shown that high degrees of collaboration focused on responding to problems identified by data produces improved outcomes, such as higher productivity and better quality output. That approach to management derives from the insights of W. Edwards Deming, who spent decades working with Japanese manufacturers after World War II to develop more effective production systems.

In the 1980s, many U.S. manufacturers that had fallen behind Japan adopted Deming’s ideas with significantly improved results. Indeed, Deming’s work laid the foundation for much of what  America’s leading graduate schools of management now teach about “high-performance work systems” and “learning organizations.” It is worth noting that Deming was fiercely opposed to management practices that ranked individual workers and paid them accordingly – the sort of approach central to today’s educational reform agenda – because those kinds of incentives induce fear, discourage teamwork, and inhibit creativity.

Can research connecting collaboration in schools to higher test scores lead to a fundamental transformation in education policy? The history of the health care debate provides some reason for optimism. One of the most significant developments in breaking decades of stalemate over proposals for universal medical coverage was the accumulation of studies showing wide variations in the cost-effectiveness of U.S. medical care providers. As evidence mounted that Kaiser Permanente, the Cleveland Clinic, Intermountain Health, and the U.S. Veterans Administration were achieving better outcomes while spending less per patient, policymakers began to focus on reforms that would help encourage other providers to organize themselves more like the highly cost-effective ones.

Not incidentally, those top medical  providers adhere to high-performance organizational practices consistent with Deming’s ideas. Elements of the Affordable Care Act supporting accountable care organizations, coordinated care, electronic medical records, and comparative effectiveness research derived from the desirability of expanding best practices built on more effective collaboration.

The U.S. public school system obviously differs in fundamental ways from our medical system, but the parallels nonetheless are meaningful between the two sectors with respect to the practices and culture of the most effective institutions. Once politicians at all levels of government come to recognize that the best hope they have of being able to take credit for improved public school test scores is to promote data-driven collaboration rather than conflict, we just might experience the long overdue transformation in education that has finally begun under the Affordable Care Act.