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A Real Recipe for Improving Schools

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To get one idea of how to improve teaching in our nation's schools, drop by the local hospital. Chances are you'll see a group of doctors and medical students walking from room to room, observing physicians interacting with patients, asking questions of each other, and thinking hard about how to apply what they've seen to their own practice. It's the stuff of countless medical shows, and the reality of how professionals in a wide range of disciplines get better at what they do over time, often even after their formal training has ended.

Now, that same "rounds" approach to ongoing learning is beginning to take root in many schools and classrooms across the country, as teachers observe -- and are observed by -- groups of their peers, who then meet together to discuss how what they saw connects to the school's most pressing instructional needs and share strategies that can help every teacher continue to get better at what they do in their own classrooms.

This is what school reform that can make an impact looks like. Research tells us that it's rarely one thing that turns around a troubled school. Instead, it's a series of consistent efforts focused on teaching and learning over time that is the key to improving outcomes for all students.

Yet this is rarely what efforts to change schools look like in reality. All too often, a new program or curriculum that made a huge difference at one school is eagerly introduced at other schools, where it fails to raise the bar on student learning. Newly hired superintendents and principals, charged with moving the needle quickly, face immense pressure to introduce sweeping changes -- changes that, even when promising, often fail to get traction. Given how quickly principals and superintendents come and go and the unacceptably high rates of teacher turnover in our most challenging schools and districts, it's not surprising that continuity of promising efforts remains a challenge. "Reforms wash over schools in successive waves, creating the illusion of change," writes Harvard University researcher Richard Elmore. "...But deep under this churning surface, the fundamental conditions of teaching and learning remain largely unchanged."

Much as forward-thinking educators have borrowed the "rounds" model from the medical profession, school leaders should look to other professions and industries, where concepts like continuous improvement and "systems thinking" are a given when leaders look to the future and plan. A consistent focus on teaching and learning, in which teachers have a voice in shaping the priorities in the classroom, can cut through what Elmore calls "the rolling surface of policy" and help ensure that the overall priorities do not change as leaders come and go.

That's what "professional learning communities," groups in which school leaders and teachers meet regularly to examine together data on student achievement, collaborate on challenges and solutions, and share resources, are supposed to do inside school buildings. On a broader scale, school districts and teacher unions in many cities have entered partnerships to work together on issues of teaching and learning instead of pointing fingers at each other. But both approaches require more than slogans and handshakes to be successful. They require a shared commitment that values instruction and commits real resources -- time, money, and the focus of leaders and teachers -- to making real changes in the classroom. They require shared leadership, where teachers have a real role in decision-making and are held accountable for the decisions they make. And most importantly, they require a commitment to continuous learning and improvement based on what's observed, learned, and gleaned from the data.

We've examined closely what this deeper commitment to collaboration can do in Columbus, OH, and Seattle, WA, cities in which school and union leaders took on an ambitious range of instructional issues -- and have taken the long view in working together. In Columbus, for example, an equal number of educators and administrators sit on what's called a "reform panel." Not only does this panel call the shots on implementing programs focused on teaching and learning, it also considers requests from individual schools that want to try different variations on the overall approach -- acknowledging that when it comes to meaningful change, one size truly does not fit all schools. In Seattle, a commitment to the long view has been codified in the district's collective bargaining agreement, which explicitly states that collaborative decision-making will continue regardless of leadership changes.

Collaboration on its own doesn't guarantee results, but in these two cities and elsewhere, the evidence is clear that it makes it more likely that decisions shaping teaching and learning are made closer to where it counts -- the classroom. Research also shows that improving collaboration among teachers contributes to improved student outcomes over time. And time and commitment, not changing priorities driven by the instructional fad of the moment, are precisely what's needed to turn around schools and transform our students' lives.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation, a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. The NEA Foundation supports student success by helping public school educators work with key partners to build strong systems of shared responsibility.