06/07/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

Standing on the Shoulders of Schools Around Us

When people ask me how my first year of teaching at a Title 1 New York City public school has gone, I always tell them the same thing; I've learned a ton. And it's true. I've studied my students' work, their responses to directions and their hobbies and interests. Above all, I've learned from my fellow teachers. When I give a quiet knock on Ms. Tejada's door, she knows that it's just me on my prep period, looking to get a few ideas from her class. I shuffle in to the back, open my laptop and furiously try to capture what makes the class so productive and joyful so that I can channel that energy with my own students.

The defining characteristic of the great teachers I know is that they learn voraciously and freely share their practices with others. Yet teachers can't do it alone. If we want to improve the quality of education we provide, schools and districts need to actively seek out models they can look up to -- schools that are hitting it out of the park with their kids. This requires large doses of humility, but after all, teaching is an incredibly humbling profession.

Last week, Mitt Romney unveiled his education platform in a speech to the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit. Romney's address first outlined how our country is in a "national education emergency," then focused on the powers of school choice, a common platform for conservatives in education. Yet Romney neglected to touch on what has become the key issue in school choice: how to help the best practices of a few schools reach the ground in many others.

We have plenty of success stories at our fingertips. Romney highlighted Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, and there are scores of other examples. At schools in the KIPP network, students score better than 95 percent of classes in their district in reading and math, and at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, TN, 100 percent of graduating seniors will be attending college this year. And not all of these beacons of success are charter schools. At the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning school, a district high school in New York City, test scores showed that the school's current ninth graders had made an average of five years of growth in reading during their three years of middle school.

We know that simply creating more charter schools is not going to lead to large-scale education reform in our country. After a decade of intense focus on creating and replicating successful charter schools, the percentage of public schools which are charter schools has increased only from two percent to five percent, and only 20 percent of those schools (meaning one of all public schools) score higher than their surrounding districts. Instead, these schools need to be used for their original purpose: as laboratories for reform which district schools can learn from. And already, there are some examples of collaboration which stand out as shining examples. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the Learning Community Charter School has partnered with its home district to train and coach Central Falls teachers.

In a divisive education policy conversation which pits one set of schools and politicians against another, educators must lead the charge to learn from other schools. Whether you're a teacher or administrator, each of us should identify a school or district whose work we admire, push to visit it with colleagues before the year is up, and then determine how to lift our schools to mirror the great work we've seen going on elsewhere. The work of educating our students is too important to take on alone; we must stand on the shoulders of those who work alongside us.

In the last weeks of the year, I will once again make my visits to Ms. Tejada's class, sitting quietly in the back as my mind and fingers race along. I am forever indebted to her for opening up her door to me. If we had this kind of collaboration on a larger scale, our profession could soar.