Teaching & Learning

Teachers Too Busy to Collaborate

While collaboration is a 21st century skill for students, teachers aren't modeling the behavior much. In a typical month, 44 percent will never visit another teacher's classroom in the same school to get ideas for instruction or offer feedback. Another 38 percent might do it once or less during that period. A third (30 percent) have never or rarely met with other teachers to share instructional practices or develop class content. And 45 percent said the same about reviewing student assessment data or assignments with other teachers.

While teacher collaboration is an important component of career development for educators, American educators too often are isolated, work autonomously and receive limited instructional support from school leaders. That's the conclusion of a RAND Corp. research project described in "The Prevalence of Collaboration Among American Teachers: National Findings from the American Teacher Panel." The non-profit thinktank queried slightly more than 1,800 teachers on topics related to their professional practices, including formal evaluation systems and opportunities for informal collaboration with colleagues. That data was merged with 2014–2015 school-level files from the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data to group teachers by the level of poverty in their schools.

The report suggested that collaborative activities such as peer observation and co-planning meetings can give teachers a chance to engage in informal mentoring with more experienced and more effective colleagues, try out new instructional approaches and co-develop their understandings of policies and practices, all of which can influence their teaching efforts.

However, a lack of time gets in the way -- especially at schools with high poverty rates. Just 31 percent of teachers reported that they have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers. Not surprisingly, those educators who said they had greater opportunities and time for collaboration consistently reported higher levels of collaboration activity.

The research found no meaningful tie between teachers' reports of collaboration opportunities or the frequency of activities and the level of poverty in their schools. However, the frequency of collaborative feedback and its perceived helpfulness was higher for teachers in low-poverty schools.

The report offered a handful of recommendations. First, school and district leaders should carve out more opportunities for peers to collaborate. While that can include peer observation and common planning time, those aren't sufficient. People also need "protocols" to guide the collaboration and encouragement to follow-through on an ongoing basis.

Researchers also encouraged principals and directors in high poverty schools to embrace support for teacher collaboration, where it might be "particularly fruitful."

"It will be important for scholars and policymakers to explore the particular obstacles that hinder teacher collaboration and to explore the practices that are seen to be particularly effective at improving teacher capacity," the report concluded.

The project was undertaken with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report is openly available on the RAND website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.