Let’s Work Together to Improve Our Schools

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By Christine Chiu

In the last year, I spoke with many teachers in LAUSD as we try to reimagine what defines a quality school and school improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Earlier this month, I decided to bring the conversation into my classroom. “What should we do about schools that struggle?” I asked my third graders.

Aaron wrote: “I think we should help the schools so we don’t have to send the kids to another school.” Benjamin wrote: “I think that struggling schools should pick the best teachers so the kids will learn better.” “I say the struggling schools should get more money from the government so the struggling and not struggling schools are even,” wrote Jane.

Under ESSA, the lowest five percent of Title I schools or high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent are eligible for support. The school turnaround efforts are created by states and districts based on local needs. Perhaps it’s time we listened to our most important constituency – our students. Another student of mine, Lishan, wrote: “I think we should help schools. We can do more than you think.”

In fact, ESSA affords us the freedom to think creatively and do more than we think. As a teacher in LAUSD, I believe that inter-school collaboration is key to school turnaround and improvement efforts.

Here is how collaboration works for me. I meet with my third grade colleagues weekly to share ideas, plan lessons, and reflect on our students’ progress. We discuss what we noticed about our kids during the week and use this information to plan the following week’s instruction. Such collaborative planning is fast becoming the norm. When I first looked for a job five years ago, more than 90% of teaching positions required collaboration and team-building skills. This is no surprise; studies show that collaboration isn’t just good for teachers, it also has a positive effect on student learning. Sharing best practices with my colleagues has strengthened me as an educator. Why not apply this strategy toward school improvement through collaboration between schools?

Education systems in England and Shanghai have demonstrated success when implementing inter-school collaboration, especially in partnerships between a low-performing and a high-performing school. Other countries are now discovering the positive effects of inter-school collaboration on student achievement. Our nation should do the same.

In a just-released policy brief, my cohort of Teach Plus Policy Fellows has proposed smart, sensible solutions to enhance inter-school collaboration. These include:

· Create, incentivize, and fund opportunities for collaboration between high-achieving and low-achieving schools.

· Match schools that share similar demographics and visions. Inter-school collaboration is most effective when paired schools can relate to one another.

· Make the partnerships voluntary. Paired schools should be able to choose inter-school collaboration as a form of school improvement.

The partnership can take the form of joint professional development meetings. Effective teachers from a higher-achieving collaboration school can lead the creation of a school turnaround management team. This team of teachers could mentor the teachers of the struggling school through observations, feedback, and coaching.

All too often in our education system, highest-performing schools remain at the top and lowest-performing schools stay at the bottom. We should bring schools together to share best practices. This is what my students meant; when there is a need, we come together to help. When it comes to school improvement, we should help struggling schools by sharing best practices. Inter-school collaboration could strengthen our education system as a whole.

Christine Chiu is a 3rd grade English teacher at Broadway Elementary’s Mandarin Dual Immersion program in Los Angeles. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow and a California Ambassador of the Teach Strong Campaign.

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