Want To Fast Track Education Reform? Try Giving Teachers the Time

When it comes to K-12 education reform, most people argue that change happens too slowly. The common narrative is that while administrative bottlenecks make implementation difficult, teachers instinctively resist change, thereby helping to impede progress rather than advance it.

In my experience, this is not the case.

The problem is not that our teachers are resistant to adopting new standards, or to advancing their own knowledge and skill sets for that matter. On the contrary, recent data shows that educators are all too eager to work together to look critically at literacy teaching and learning practices and pilot approaches that enrich student learning. The core issue, it turns out, is quality time.

Shockingly few teachers are actually given the time or support required to execute against a vision of reform. Moreover, too few schools provide the opportunities for collaboration that are essential ingredients for advancing education outcomes. A recent survey by The National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) shows just how big a problem this is.

According to the survey:

  • Only 17 percent of teachers say they were significantly involved in their school's plan to implement new education standards.
  • Only 32 percent of teachers have the chance to interact with colleagues about how a lesson has worked.
  • Only 14 percent of teachers frequently receive feedback from colleagues.
  • And only 10 percent frequently have the opportunity to observe the teaching practice of a colleague.

Additional evidence suggests that collaborative time afforded to teachers is quickly eroding. A MetLife study recently indicated that while in 2009, 68 percent of educators had several hours per week to constructively engage with colleagues for the purpose of skills advancement, by 2012 that quality time had dwindled down to less than one hour per week. How are our teachers expected to keep pace with required change when they don't have one hour per week to prepare or interact with other educators?

Rather than setting them up for failure, more schools should adapt to the reality that today's teachers face. Granted, there is no easy formula for advancing the talents and characteristics that lead to great teaching. But there are ways to optimize the structure of a given day, and design an environment that works for the mutual benefit of both educators and students.

At our newly opened John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, we're experimenting with a new schedule, curriculum and policy changes that help make quality time and teacher collaboration a top priority. Here are a few tips based on our experience so far:

Provide the necessary freedom. It sounds counterintuitive, but we have found that one of the best ways to get teachers onboard with new standards is to back off and give them some needed space. Unlike most schools, we don't use textbooks, handbooks or pre-packaged programs. Instead, we offer teachers the opportunity to be self-directed and give them the freedom to experiment. The iterative process of trial and error has proven to be invaluable, both in terms of getting teachers comfortable with advanced new material and in terms of bringing STEM curriculum to life for students.

Make sharing a priority. The number one way our teachers learn and prepare is by engaging with their peers -- sharing subject knowledge, successes, failures, pitfalls and opportunities. They do this sharing at lunch time, and during scheduled collaboration periods throughout the week. In fact, we make it a job requirement to actively engage with other teachers as well as school administrators on a frequent basis, as we believe collaboration is key to better outcomes. If you don't give teachers the opportunity to provide input and grow professionally, then how can you expect improved results?

Appeal to teacher passions. While all our teachers have a passion for STEM, each comes to us with different backgrounds and interests. We encourage our teachers to bring their passions into the classroom in order to lift the quality of education experiences. For instance, one of our teachers is a seasoned art historian. In her class you'll find programs such as STEM Art, which touches on the intersection between art, creativity, math and science. Such classes are student favorites, and the ones where the material resonates most.

My sense is that school administrators should think more progressively, respond to the needs of teachers more thoughtfully, and make needed adjustments more willingly. Without continual fine-tuning, we'll be putting an unfair burden on teachers -- and that is the ultimate bottleneck to education reform.

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