We need meaningful dialogue & collaboration

Mark Anderson is a special education teacher in the Bronx. He is originally from California and still trying to convince himself that skyscrapers are equivalent to mountains. Follow Mark on Twitter @mandercorn or on his blog Schools as Ecosystems.

From where I sit—as a special education teacher in East Tremont in the Bronx—it looks to me like the same issues that plague my public school and district plague the school system at large.

It's rare that content knowledge, pedagogical wisdom, or other experiential knowledge is transferred between classrooms, let alone between schools or between districts. It does happen, when those few teachers that establish meaningful relationships with one another talk about a lesson, or ask to borrow something, or ask for help when they are struggling with a concept. But it doesn’t happen often enough.

One would think that this sort of meaningful transfer of information would occur as a result of professional development or prep period time, but professional development largely seems to stand for "paying some institution lots of money so it can come and tell us how to teach." It's rare that anything that is developed through those sessions comes directly from the teachers themselves, and it's rarer still that anything is implemented in an ongoing manner as a result of that PD.

The 20-30 minutes of actual prep period time, after students have been shuttled down stairs and into another classroom and you've walked back up the stairs, is used to hurriedly throw together a trajectory for the next day or week, desperately write out progress reports, work on an IEP, or call a parent.

This is unfortunate. The teachers in my school are an untapped, vast repository of knowledge that are rarely recognized, except intermittently by their own students.

What's missing, at all levels, is genuine dialogue grounded in the professional experience of the classroom.

Sometimes I wonder if this lack of formal and systematic collaboration and professional dialogue—centered upon expertise and knowledge from deep within the field—is the very problem that lies at the heart of the myriad other problems in public education. We have influential leaders like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, who seem not to put much stock in collaboration; vis Klein's recent comment in The Atlantic that “collaboration is the elixir of the status quo.” We have unions that have historically dug in their heels against any and all attempts to professionalize teaching. We have policymakers that use disassociated, disaggregated numbers generated by test-making corporations far removed from the classroom.

What's missing here, at all levels, is genuine dialogue grounded in the professional experience of the classroom. Teachers are a diverse bunch for sure, with wildly divergent values, beliefs, and experiences. But we also possess a wealth of knowledge about the students and communities within which we work. We have deep and lasting relationships with children and their parents. We know what's working and what's not working in our schools. Somehow, this ground level knowledge, this field-based experience, needs to be transferred up to those governing our school systems, and it needs to be transferred in a manner that goes deeper and goes beyond simple numbers tabulated by tests or attendance or graduation rates.

I see two essential things missing from our governance structures in public education: formal and systematic horizontal and vertical channels of professional communication, especially channels that allow feedback; and decision-making that travels upward, not simply downward.

How do we institutionalize “genuine dialogue” at all levels across the educational system?

So how do we institutionalize “genuine dialogue” at all levels across the educational system? I believe we must start by investing directly in initiatives to encourage collaboration between teachers on the front lines. I would suggest to policymakers that they find a means of increasing out-of-classroom time for teachers. This could be tied into leadership roles and recognition from evaluations. This out-of-classroom time could have any number of practical applications. Teachers could become more involved in policy. Teachers could visit and learn from other classrooms in their own school, and in other schools across different districts, cities, and even states.

At the other end of the spectrum, state, city, and district leaders who have traditionally been merely symbolic heads of school systems must set foot in schools and classrooms. And not simply in photo op schools, where they can be seen reading to children who can function in a typical classroom environment and respect authority. They need to set foot in the schools that are struggling, and they need to understand that struggle first-hand. They need to enter the self-contained classrooms in impoverished communities and understand what it truly means to teach in the inner city. They need to see first-hand schools that lack materials, that don't even have toilet paper in the bathrooms. Otherwise, all they will see in their offices and meeting rooms is disassociated data.

I'm not sure how this latter suggestion can be implemented in policy; I believe lawmakers will need to be involved in providing the formal requirement that political leaders—whether mayor, school board members, or superintendent—must step foot into classrooms on a frequent basis. But I believe that increasing the opportunities for collaboration and understanding across different levels of school governance will provide a foundation for meaningful dialogue.

So my advice to those who wish to make our public education systems better: start by implementing ways of gathering knowledge from the field; systematically foster professional dialogue between classrooms, schools, districts, and states; and triangulate test score data with the information gleaned from direct engagement and dialogue with battle-hardened veterans from the field. Otherwise, teachers, school leaders, and policymakers will continue driving blind, isolated in the confines of their own echo chambers.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

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