Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated

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Educators spend most of their time distanced from their colleagues. Instead of forcing them to compete with each other, we should help them find new ways to work together.

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On the first day of their first year teaching, new teachers walk into their schools and meet their colleagues. They might talk about the latest state assessments, textbooks that have just arrived, or the newest project the district is spearheading. Some veteran teachers may tell the newcomers "how things are done" at the schools. And then, as teachers have done since the founding of public education in the U.S., they take leave of one another, walk to their classrooms to meet their students, and close the door.

In his classic 1975 book, Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie described teacher isolation as one of the main structural impediments to improved instruction and student learning in American public schools. Lortie argued that since at least the 19th century teachers have worked behind closed doors, rarely if ever collaborating with colleagues on improving teaching practice or examining student work. "Each teacher," Lortie wrote, "... spent his teaching day isolated from other adults; the initial pattern of school distribution represented a series of 'cells' which were construed as self-sufficient."

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This situation continues to the present day. A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. The majority of American teachers plan, teach, and examine their practice alone.

In other countries, such as Finland and Japan, where students outperform those in the U.S. in international tests such as PISA and TIMMS, collaboration among teachers is an essential aspect of instructional improvement. The problem is not that American teachers resist collaboration. Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that nearly 90 percent of U.S. teachers believe that providing time to collaborate with colleagues is crucial to retaining good teachers.

So what would it take structurally to enable teachers to work collaboratively for improved learning outcomes?

Answering this question demands changes in some longstanding American public school structures. Perhaps the most important change is in school curricula. One of the key differences between public education in the U.S. and elsewhere is the lack of a common curriculum. In other countries common curricula unite the work of teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, students, and parents. With a common curriculum there is agreement about what students are expected to learn, what teachers are to teach, what teacher educators are to instill in potential teachers, and what tests of student learning should measure.

A common curriculum for the nearly 100,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. could be a major step towards productive teacher collaboration. It would align the scope and sequence of what should be taught and learned, and teachers could collaborate with one another on lessons day by day. They could look at student work and assessments of student learning of that curriculum, and could coordinate their instruction to remediate and enhance student understanding.

There is some hope that this could actually come to pass. Today, 45 states and the District of Columbia have committed to the Common Core, a set of curricular standards that are meant to drive instruction and assessment. While the Common Core is not an elaborated curriculum, it is definitely a move in the right direction.

However, even the best curriculum is not self-enacting. Time and money need to be invested to support teachers' understanding of the curriculum and to develop an ethos of collaboration within schools. Also needed are ongoing professional development programs to support teachers' substantive work together.

While we are making good headway in support of these efforts, one problem looms. A number of contemporary reformers have put great faith in the idea that teacher competition (e.g., merit pay) can dramatically improve educational outcomes. The jury is still out regarding the effectiveness of such reforms, but we greatly fear that such policies will undermine teachers' collaborative work. Ironically, competitive teacher assessment schemes could reinforce teacher isolation. If teachers are competing with one another for merit pay, why should they collaborate with one another? They might as well go back behind their closed doors.

We hope that that is not the case. Done well, greater collaboration among teachers is a promising and important change in school structure. Contemporary teachers are no longer wedded to the "cellular organization" Lortie described. Indeed, many of them recognize the potential value of collaboration for retaining skilled teachers and supporting school improvement.

Teachers tell us that they do not want to close the doors to their classrooms after a brief introductory "hello." They want to collaborate with one another to enrich teaching and support students' learning. We need to find the resources and opportunities to help them do so.

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Presented by

Jeffrey Mirel & Simona Goldin

Jeffrey Mirel is the David L. Angus Collegiate Chair of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, and is also a professor in the university’s history department.Simona Goldin teaches at the School of Education at the University of Michigan and is a research specialist at Teaching Works.

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