Collaboration, not conflict, in education

A new collaborative education approach is evolving.

After years of bitter disagreements from all sides in the education arena, a new approach is evolving. This one calls for harmony among the many voices trying to improve things for children. And though it's impossible to paper over real differences, there is a set of common goals that's resonating for groups as diverse as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Teach for America (TFA).

With over 50 partner organizations (including Teaching Matters, which works to develop and retain great teachers in urban school districts), the new coalition, known as TeachStrong, offers a nine-point prescription. The platform focuses on teacher selection and preparation, ongoing teacher support with new ways of structuring teachers' environments and teacher career growth opportunities. Each component recognizes the need to modernize and elevate the teaching profession in order to best serve students who are at risk of leaving K-12 education unprepared to meet college or adult demands.

One of us is a high school principal, the other the head of an organization supporting urban public schools. We know from experience that investing in teachers as collaborators and leaders is an important element in moving student achievement. When teachers team up together and share their best practices, students benefit. When teachers get a renewed sense of satisfaction in their professional experience, they stay longer — and that too is good for children.

There's a pressing need for change we've each seen firsthand. Although it has improved, the graduation rate from high school hovers a bit above 70 percent in Baltimore and also in New York City. That's better than many other urban districts, but it still leaves far too many young people at loose ends. And overall, the best teaching is least accessible to those who need it most urgently: the poorest and minority children. It's these very children who are taught by the greatest percentage of new teachers. That's in part because it's in the poorest schools where the revolving door swings most quickly, and there is churn from one year to the next in teaching staff. And despite the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, urban schools are marked by persistently high levels of both economic and racial segregation that ill-serve students.

These realities undergird long-standing inequality in both opportunity and results. It's widely understood that the single most important school-related factor for improving children's educational outcomes is teaching quality. The reform movement was right to recognize that equal access to great teaching is crucial to improve urban children's opportunities. But many efforts to date have contributed to driving prospective and current teachers away from the profession. Schools and school systems that succeed in raising the quality of instruction are doing so with teachers, not in battle against them.

To improve teaching for all children, we must dramatically raise both the expectations and the status of the profession. We must also recognize a stark imbalance: Student populations are majority minority, while the teaching force is about 80 percent white. On the front end, we can create game-changing inducements and scholarships for a diverse array of promising teacher candidates.

The help can't stop there, though. Retention is key. Systems making progress, including New York City and Baltimore, are developing incentives for teachers to stay in high poverty schools by providing real leadership, financial rewards and career growth opportunities. They are rethinking how teachers work as professionals, ending the practice of isolated classroom teaching in favor of team approaches, developing new ways to increase the reach of the most effective teachers and, especially for new teachers, providing significant levels of direct coaching and support. These are steps in the right direction to change the very nature of the teaching profession.

During this election year, TeachStrong will work to make education an issue that must be addressed by candidates. Teaching Matters has signed on. We need both political will and funds to modernize the teaching profession and elevate teaching for all students.

Lynette Guastaferro (lguastaferro@teachingmatters.org) is executive director of Teaching Matters, based in New York City. Kirk Sykes (Principalsykes@gmail.com) is principal of Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County.

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