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Collaborative Culture: An Overlooked Element of School Reform

by Larry McBiles

As someone who has invested much of my career in improving the instructional quality of schools for the benefit of students and educators, I believe most education reform will be stuck in second gear without fundamental changes in the culture of our schools.

Through the Center for Teacher Success, my colleagues and I work to improve the instructional quality of schools by focusing on the educator. We provide training and support to superintendents, district staff, principals and teachers. Our engagements often focus on helping school personnel improve their organizational culture. With so many other professional demands on teachers, some might question the importance we place on the quality of adult relationships on a campus.

I visit too many schools in Arizona where the daily routine of teachers is to close their classroom doors and teach with little or no interaction with their peers. Of course, this is not a new pattern for teachers. But it is clearly at odds with what we expect from our teachers in the 21st century. Simply stated, we expect teachers to work together so that students are prepared when they move on to their next teacher. This means teachers must be in sync with their grade-level peers and with the teachers in grades before and after them. The emphasis must be on true collaboration rather than isolation. And this collaboration must reflect a shared responsibility and accountability for high levels of student learning.

Progressive corporations have long understood the value of creating and sustaining collaborative cultures. For a number of years The Harvard Business Review has documented numerous examples of how companies have used collaboration as the cornerstone of high organizational performance. School leaders would do well to follow the lead and counsel from their corporate counterparts.

A growing body of research makes a compelling case for a collaborative culture in schools. Moreover, the research underscores positive changes for both teachers and students. Teachers develop a shared ownership for the direction of their school as well as greater responsibility for student achievement, increase their understanding of content and pedagogy, and adapt more quickly to the inevitable changes that must occur for schools to improve. Students’ academic gains are larger and there are lower rates of dropping out, absenteeism and truancy.

Building a collaborative culture takes more than a change in teacher attitudes and professional habits. District and school leaders must commit the time, training, and support required for meaningful collaboration to occur.   And with patience and persistence, collaborative cultures are an example of how raised expectations deliver a remarkable payoff in the form of stellar teachers and students.

Dr. Larry McBiles is Executive Director of the Center for Teacher Success.

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