Teaching as team sport

A gues post by Robert Barkley

Yes, you read that title right. Traditional schools are structured and managed as if teachers were individual performers. Evidence and common sense say that's far from being the case.

Given the recent furor over the Chicago teacher strike and the accompanying union bashing that dominates the mainstream media, we'd do well to give thought to what can be learned from successful schools around the globe.

We talk much about American exceptionalism. A key element of that exceptionalism is our deep-seated belief in the merits of competition. So thoroughly have we adopted the notion that market forces inevitably lead to superior performance, we have great difficulty accepting the fact that schools that emphasize collegial relationships, encourage shared faculty planning, and make use of cooperative approaches to designing and implementing teaching and learning strategies, routinely outpace those that stress competition.

Most teachers know this intuitively, although too few articulate it well. Professional organizations, unions, school administrators, and schools of education are also familiar with the research and conclusions based on experience, but are no more successful than individual teachers at getting the message across. The narrow preoccupation with raising test scores at the expense of all else seems to have so rattled educators they can’t get their sensible messages out.

The need to work together is a major reason why private sector pressure to rate and pay teachers on the basis of test scores and other individual performance measures is a huge mistake. Predictably—given political reliance on corporate funding for campaigns—neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to listen to educators. Vouchers, choice, charters, merit pay, school closings and “turnarounds,” and other silver bullets being fired by politicians and rich entrepreneurs block dialogue that could be productive if they came to the issues open to the possibility that the hundreds of thousands who actually do the work might just possibly know something about how to do it best.

Corporate fascination with competitiveness notwithstanding, in teaching and learning, competitiveness is almost always counterproductive. It blocks a host of useful strategies for evaluating performance, gets in the way of freely sharing good ideas, and wastes the benefits of knowing one is part of a team, the work of which will inevitably be smarter than that of individual members.

It’s ironic that teamwork—an idea the merit of which is taken for granted on factory floors and playing fields, in neighborhoods and families, and just about everywhere else that humans try to be productive—is seen as counterproductive in classrooms. Within companies managers want employees to collaborate with colleagues. An accountant sitting next to a fellow accountant is required to work with that person. No one wants the two of them to compete, withhold trade secrets, and crush the other by the end of the day.

Finding scapegoats, fixing blame for poor performance on a percentage of teachers or on a few individuals, has an appealing simplicity about it, but it’s a lazy, simplistic, misguided approach to improving system performance. As management experts have been pointing out for decades, if a system isn’t performing, it almost always means there’s a system problem. Since teachers have almost no control over the systems of which they are a part, it’s necessary to make the most of a bad situation, and the easiest way to do that is to capitalize on their collective wisdom. If they’re being forced to compete against each other, there’s no such thing as collective wisdom.

For a generation, under the banner of standards and accountability, teachers have been criticized, scorned, denigrated, maligned, blamed. Accountability in education as indicated by standardized test scores is no more about individual teacher performance than accountability in health care as indicated by patient temperatures is about individual nurse performance.

I’m not making excuses for poor educator performance. Teachers should be held accountable for identifying, understanding, and applying practices that produce the highest level of student achievement. Administrators should be held accountable for creating an environment that encourages the identification, understanding and sharing of effective practices. Schools of education should be held accountable for whatever improves the institution.

But the new reformers aren't interested in improvement, just replacement. Management experts say, "Don't fix blame; fix the system." Just about everyone in the system would love to help do that if given the opportunity, but the opportunity hasn’t been offered, so nothing of consequence changes.

Case in point: The Chicago teachers’ strike. Rahm Emanuel, like the rest of the current “reformers,” came to the table having bought the conventional wisdom in Washington and state capitols that educators either don’t know what to do or aren’t willing to do it. He obviously went to Chicago with the same tired suspicion of teachers, the same belief that they’re the problem rather than the key to a real solution, the same confrontational, competitive stance.

Will we ever learn? Don’t hold your breath.

Robert Barkley, Jr., is retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association, a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders, Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents, and Lessons for a New Reality: Guidance for Superintendent/Teacher Organization Collaboration. He may be reached at

Education News for 10-12-2012

State Education News

  • Superintendent evaluation process varies (Hamilton Journal-News)
  • While Race to the Top and other education reform movements are putting an emphasis on teacher and principal evaluations, there is no uniform method for evaluating superintendents…Read more...

  • CTC programs take students from classroom to workforce (Portsmouth Daily Times)
  • The Scioto County Career Technical Center has changed faces since its old days as “VoTech,” with a significant growth…Read more...

Local Education News

  • Former Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett to take over top post in Chicago (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
  • Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard stepped down Thursday after a little more than a year in the post, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel said…Read more...

  • Levy failure would result in loss of up to 20 teachers (Lorain Morning Journal)
  • Failure of Amherst schools 4.9-mill levy, Issue 28, would mean up to 20 more teaching positions would be eliminated, Superintendent Steve Sayers said…Read more...

  • Nonstudents enter LaBrae High, triggering a lockdown of school (Youngstown Vindicator)
  • LaBrae High School was on lockdown for 90 minutes Thursday morning after three young men walked into the school who were not students there and were noticed by a teacher…Read more...


  • Access denied (Akron Beacon Journal)
  • State agencies catch grief for layers of bureaucracy that waste time and money. Many times, the problem originates with the General Assembly. Ohio’s Statewide Student Identifier system…Read more...

Education News for 09-24-2012

State Education News

  • Extent of student-data scandal still unknown (Columbus Dispatch)
  • On a tight departure-and-arrival schedule, principals rotated in and out of the data czar’s office each year…Read more...

  • School districts find organized opposition is increasingly common (Columbus Dispatch)
  • There are some people in Upper Arlington who say that on Nov. 6, they will vote no on the school district’s tax request. That’s not new…Read more...

  • State will measure physical education (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Next year’s state report cards will feature a new measure for Ohio schools: how their students are doing in physical education…Read more...

  • Schools pile up millions in legal bills (Dayton Daily News)
  • Consulting with school attorneys is a necessary but unpredictable expense, local school officials say, that can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single case…Read more...

  • Superintendents fight Ohio’s ‘Third Grade Guarantee’ (Washington Post)
  • The Chicago teachers strike was the biggest action that we’ve seen against aspects of modern school reform, but people in other places are fighting too. Here’s a report from Ohio…Read more...

Local Education News

  • Coleman to help, not lead, schools (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman plans to lend his leadership to the Columbus City Schools, including helping to select a replacement…Read more...

  • 'Brain drain' has attention of educators (Marion Star)
  • Data to support that Marion County residents who graduate from universities and colleges move out of Marion County after they graduate is hard to come by…Read more...


  • Better school lunches (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
  • While some kids may groan or even hold lunch boycotts, the United States Department of Agriculture's new focus on fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches…Read more...

  • Outing evil (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Americans have been shaken in recent years when details have come to light of revered institutions covering up the sexual abuse of children…Read more...

  • Helping hands (Columbus Dispatch)
  • Mayor Michael B. Coleman and City Council President Andrew J. Ginther are stepping up to help the Columbus City School District through a difficult time…Read more...

  • Rejecting test scores as a core value (Los Angeles Times)
  • It wasn't about money. It was about respect. That's what Chicago teachers union president Karen Lewis kept reminding the public…Read more...

Two Visions

Education historian Diane Ravitch, writing about the Chicago teachers strike, but has lots of relevance across the board

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.

What do the teachers want? The main sticking point is the seemingly arcane issue of teacher evaluations. The mayor wants student test scores to count heavily in determining whether a teacher is good (and gets a bonus) or bad (and is fired). The union points to research showing that test-based evaluation is inaccurate and unfair. Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any job protections.

Encounrage you to read the whole piece, here.

Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago

The Consortium On Chicago School Research At The University Of Chicago Urban Education Institute just released an interesting report on the Chicago teacher evaluations rubric. We bring this to our readers attention because their process includes elements such as observations, that will surely be included in the forthcoming Ohio evaluation rubric. The conclusion begins

Our study of the Excellence in Teaching Pilot in Chicago reveals some positive outcomes: the observation tool was demonstrated to be reliable and valid. Principals and teachers reported they had more meaningful conversations about instruction. The majority of principals in the pilot were engaged and positive about their participation. At the same time, our study identifies areas of concern: principals were more likely to use the Distinguished rating.

Our interviews with principals confirm that principals intentionally boost their ratings to the highest category to preserve relationships. And, while principals and teachers reported having better conversations than they had in the past, there are indications that both principals and teachers still have much to learn about how to translate a rating on an instructional rubric into deep conversation that drives improvement in the classroom. Future work in teacher evaluation must attend to these critical areas of success, as well as these areas of concern, in order to build effective teacher evaluation systems.

Though practitioners and policymakers rightly spend a good deal of time comparing the effectiveness of one rubric over another, a fair and meaningful evaluation hinges on far more than the merits of a particular tool. An observation rubric is simply a tool, one which can be used effectively or ineffectively. Reliability and validity are functions of the users of the tool, as well as of the tool itself. The quality of implementation depends on principal and observer buy-in and capacity, as well as the depth and quality of training and support they receive.

We would add that this kind of tool could be very dangerous absent due process collective bargaining protections.

Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago