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Q&A: UC Berkeley prof on teacher collaboration and the future of LA schools

Teachers in charter and pilot Los Angeles public schools collaborate with and trust each other significantly more than teachers in L.A. Unified's traditional large public high schools, according to a new report from University of California researchers.

"There was so much trust and acceptance that teachers eagerly observed each other and gave coaching hints and came up with new ideas and units for kids," said Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller, who leads the L.A. Teacher Ties Project, a joint venture between scholars at Berkeley and UCLA to study teacher stability and motivation in Los Angeles schools. "That’s kind of interesting because there’s lots of controversy over teacher evaluation."

Released last month, the report notes significantly higher feelings of collective responsibility toward students and their school among teachers in charter and pilot schools than teachers in traditional Los Anglees Unified public schools. Charter schools and pilot schools are both managed on site, operating with more independence from central administration.

The project, funded by the Spencer Foundation and the University of California Educational Evaluation Center at UCLA, issued web-based surveys to teachers and administrators in 25 L.A. Unified schools. The roster included 10 charter schools, 10 pilot schools, 2 traditional schools, and 3 so-called Reed schools, where teachers were granted legal protection from layoffs in order to slow turnover in the wake of the settlement of Reed, et. al vs. the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2011. Teachers answered questions about collaboration, motivation, their perception of their school’s cohesion, and named the colleagues they went to for guidance.

Across school types, teachers sought each other out more for advice on how to address students with problems rather than on the practice of teaching itself.

The study found school principals set higher expectations for teacher collaboration, and delegated more tasks to teachers than in the traditional high schools. It also found charter and pilot schools, on average, employed much younger teachers - and that a significantly lower percentage of charter and pilot school teachers planned to stay in their current school in five years’ time than teachers in traditional schools. Charters do not hire teachers from within the district's personnel system, but pilot school teachers are district employees and work under a different labor contract from teachers in traditional high schools.

"Being a team player in many of these schools means attending to the kids who are falling behind," Fuller said. "And part of being defined as an effective teacher is seen as contributing to those shared responsibilities in an effective manner."

KPCC interviewed Fuller about the research. Here's an edited version of the interview:

What did you find?

Size does make a difference when we’re talking about teacher commitment and motivation. If you think about a healthy school as having teachers that trust each other and teachers who believe that together they can raise the performance of all children, something we call collective responsibility, teachers are much more trusting and much more committed to kids in small charters and pilots compared to massive garden variety high schools in the district.

For parents, I think this report suggests they should take a really careful look at these small high schools because we did find on average more teachers who were more trusting of each other, work more collaboratively, and generally feel that they’re in this project together to lift all kids. Not that we don’t see that in big high schools, but cohesion is weaker in [those] high schools.

Did you find anything surprising?

I was frankly surprised at the magnitude of these differences [between charter schools and traditional schools]. These are not small differences in teacher commitment and motivation. These are actually quite dramatically higher levels in charters and pilots on average.

Not all charters and pilots are created equal. We see a lot of variability in all of these good things when it comes to teacher commitment and collaboration just among charters and among pilots, so there’s no guarantee of stronger teacher commitment and stronger teacher motivation.

Is there hope for large, traditional high schools in L.A.Unified?

LA certainly moves toward this academy model. So you’ll go out to a garden variety high school and see the school split up into smaller academies. Sometimes it does emulate [the cohesion] you get in a pilot or charter, but I think the problem is that though you can emulate the kind of small community we’re seeing in pilots and charters, those principals don’t enjoy the authority to get rid of lousy teachers or hire more like-minded teachers. So I think the academy approach is one step forward, but does it get us to the benefits we’re seeing with truly small high schools? I don’t think so. Not yet.

The mission-driven schools, I think, are really promising in the sense that everyone kind of understands the curricular mission. Maybe one of the lessons from the small schools is that it really has to be a real and a tight community. It can’t be a structure on paper.

But principals at traditional high schools do decide whom to hire, don't they?

If you’re a principal at a regular high school and you’ve got an open slot, you’ve got to go to the personnel department downtown and get a list. Those people at the top of the list have seniority and you have to work your way down that list, but charters aren’t tapped into the personnel system, so they’re free actors. Pilots do get a list but they don’t necessarily have to go from top to the bottom of the list. They can move around and go after people they want and that’s because pilots operate under their own state labor contract that the UTLA has agreed to. What the UTLA has given up for the pilots is seniority rights.

What’s next for the LA Teacher Ties Project?

We spent several days in three of these [small] schools and we’re trying to figure out how the autonomies enjoyed by these schools translate into everyday behaviors and practices that lead to trust, collective responsibility, all these good things. What’s being done that’s different?

One thing that looks really different is that principals delegate much more authority to these teachers in these small high schools. The other mechanism we’re seeing relates to more collaboration across subject matter. In small high schools it turns out that teachers meet across subject areas and so that creates all sorts of neat synthesis. The qualitative work, in short, is trying to identify these breakout practices that try to explain how teachers create these more cohesive communities.

You can read the full report here.