Learning from The Met: Collaboration Killers

Being a bit of a data junkie, I really look forward to the release of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher each year.  Working to collect the kinds of tangible information that policymakers can use as a window into our profession, I see The Met as one of the most important tools that us teacher-types have when advocating for change in our profession. 

Part one of this year's MetLife survey was released this week and it covers a topic likely to be near and dear to the hearts of anyone working in a school:  Effective teaching and school leadership.  Collecting the perspectives teachers and principals working across grade levels and social demographics, the results paint an interesting picture of the state of collaboration within the American schoolhouse.

While there were dozens of findings that caught my eye, none was more important than this:  Principals and teachers STILL see core issues like "empowerment" and "teacher leadership" quite differently. 

Need proof?  Then check out the response rates to the following two statements:

Met Survey Table

Download Met Survey Table

Talk about shocking, huh?!  Anytime you've got perception gaps ranging from 20 to 30 points, there's DEFINITELY a problem.

The thing is that in almost every survey where the perceptions of principals and teachers are gathered, the same kinds of gaps exist.  North Carolina's Teacher Working Conditions Survey is a great example.  Similar questions to the Met's are asked every two years, and every two years, principals are consistently more positive about the levels of empowerment and shared decision-making in their buildings than teachers are.

Now, I'm not surprised by the disconnect.  Principals are, after all, generally good people who are working hard to create the kinds of schools that attract motivated teachers and that tap into the human capital of their faculties.  Most principals understand that shared decisions are more informed—and more reliable—than those made by "the boss."  They also believe in the ability of their teachers.

But I'm also not naive enough to overlook the consequences of this disconnect, either.  When principals strongly believe that they are empowering their teachers and creating schools where shared decisions are common, little is going to change.  Can we really expect to see more attempts to empower teachers when most principals are already convinced that their teachers ARE empowered?

In the end, these kinds of discrepancies between the perceptions of principals and teachers are collaboration killers.  Teachers recognize early on whether investing time and energy into crafting shared decisions or into shaping the direction of a school is worth their while. 

When true empowerment exists—represented by a balance between teacher and principal perceptions on the kinds of questions that the Met is spotlighting this year—there is a synergy around schools that is contagious.  Every adult checks their title at the door and works together to drive change.  Innovative thoughts and approaches are encouraged and powerful new discoveries are common. 

But when empowerment is nothing more than a buzzword embraced by those who hold all of the power to begin with, innovation dies.  Rather than invest energies into shared decisions that are likely to be overruled and/or ignored, teachers retreat into the apathetic, blue-collar world that we've spent the past two-decades railing against—and students suffer.  

I guess my advice to school leaders would be simple:  Carefully reflect on exactly how empowered your teachers are.  Touch base with the most motivated teacher leaders on your staff and ask them whether or not your decision-making processes encourage collaborative efforts and innovation. 

Think about how the most important initiatives in your building were selected and implemented.  Did teachers have the chance to voice any dissent?  Were their thoughts actively collected and considered?  What would the consequences be if they chose to work in another direction?

When you're own hands are tied by decisions made at the district or state level and teacher voice is ignored through no fault of your own, make that reality transparent to your faculty.  Teachers are often too buried under the day-to-day reality of the classroom to see beyond the school.  Honestly pointing out the places where shared decisions are replaced by mandates that no one can ignore will raise awareness and decrease resentment. 

In the end, know that preaching about empowerment while making important decisions from the top—a trend that this year's Met data seems to suggest—-leads to collaborative efforts that are likely to be half-hearted at best.

Does any of this make sense?

11 thoughts on “Learning from The Met: Collaboration Killers

  1. David Jacobson

    Bill: I appreciate the spotlight you’ve put on the discrepancy the MetLife Survey found between teacher and principal perceptions. I was also interested in the comment you made on Ariel Sacks’ post about the MetLife survey, specifically her discussion of peer observation: http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/shoulders_of_giants/. Since I can’t respond directly to your comment there, I thought I’d bring it over here. Hope that’s OK with you.
    You say:
    “Priorities are also a problem. I’m told that I’m supposed to be providing enrichment and remediation to every kid. I’m told … [many things] …
    And now I’m told that I’m supposed to be observing my peers.
    I have NOTHING AGAINST any of the items in my above list. But someone somewhere has to set some priorities. If teachers observing other teachers is something we value, it’s time we put our money where our mouth is.”
    I have a particular interest in this topic–what Michael Fullan refers to as “overload and fragmentation.” In fact, I’ve started a blog called Common Priorities. I thought you might be interested in this study (http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/content/publications.php?pub_id=39), which found that the more coherent a school becomes in its teachers’ eyes, the more student achievement rises. Check out Figure 3 on page 25.
    I have a post on this issue entitled, “Education’s Peanut Butter Manifesto,” that you can find here: http://www.commonpriorities.org/?p=3.
    I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the post and the study. Thanks. Best, David

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Allison wrote:
    Unfortunatly we dont live in perfect and its been my experince that once somebody has those few extra letters before their names, they dont want anyone to forget it.
    Hey Allison,
    First, glad that you’ll be following my blog. I hope you find something worthwhile that pushes your thinking.
    Second, I really struggle with the letters behind people’s names simply because they DO imply a measure of experience and understanding that has been earned.
    That’s got to count for something.
    What bugs me is when the lack of letters and titles automatically implies a lower status in the minds of people. If we really believe in collaboration, titles shouldn’t matter—-ideas should.
    I’ve made a conscious decision to stay in the classroom and NOT to pursue a degree in administration. For many, that choice means I’m disqualified from meaty conversations about how schools should be run.
    That’s heartbreaking.

  3. Allison Rogers

    My name is Allison and I am s student at USA and as an assignment for my EDM 310 class (http://edm310.blogspot.com/) I will be following your blog for the next few weeks. I will be graduating in 2011, my field of study is secondary education. I enjoyed your post, it was a relief to see that the principle teacher communication problem was not just in the high school that I graduated from.Your post also opened my eyes to the fact that this is something that I am most definately going to have to deal with during my career as a teacher. I agree with you this is something that really needs to be worked on, In a perfect world teachers and administrators would check their titles at the door and really work on the issues at hand. Unfortunatly we dont live in perfect and its been my experince that once somebody has those few extra letters before their names, they dont want anyone to forget it.

  4. Charlie A. Roy

    @ Paul
    I don’t think you misunderstand my statements. Essentially every teacher worth their salt sits around all day wondering when anyone is going to do anything about that bottom group that contributes nothing to the collaborative culture of the school. We all know who they are and we all wonder why year after year no one seems to do anything about it?
    I’d agree giving people chances and opportunities to change are important. In my career as an administrator I don’t enjoy letting people go in any way. But I’d have to say I don’t think they find the decision to be a surprise.
    I agree this power needs to be wielded in an “uber-careful” manner to prevent the potentially arbitrary view of a single administrator to unfairly terminate employees. Those administrators who are capricious in this responsibility don’t seem to last very long.
    If we want teachers to collaborate with administrators the end product is much more worthwhile if we have high quality teachers and administrators to do this collaborative work.
    A group of unmotivated idiots is not going to magically produce meaningful school reform becasue they used the magic word “collaborate”.

  5. Jessica Ferris

    Mr. Ferriter,
    I am a student at the University of South Alabama, and my EDM 310 [microcomputing systems in education] professor Dr. Strange has kindly guided me to your blog; I will be following it for the next couple of weeks, and I will eventually post about it in my own blog based on what I learn; I invite you to take a look at it for yourself. Your input and comments are greatly appreciated, too!
    This was a really interesting thing for me to read: I suppose it makes sense that principals would assume that their responsibilities in sharing improvement in academics and decision-making powers are shared equally and based on faculty input. What they probably don’t realize is that not all teachers’ input may be considered as equal as others: some decisions’ outcomes may affect English teachers more than math teachers, so naturally, these English teachers’ suggestions/decisions would be held in higher regard than those of the math teachers. Perhaps that’s where these statistics are coming from? Obviously, some teachers don’t feel like they are on equal footing with the principals, and I’m sure this is not done purposefully.
    As far as the shared responsibilities in “school improvement strategies” in academics goes, of course the teachers feel like they carry more weight – they’re the ones in the classrooms, making sure the students are learning what is required for academic achievement as measured by the standardized tests…
    Reading this – and all the comments posted about it! – has allowed me to see both sides of the responsibility perspective: there will always be those who feel like they work harder than others, even if the responsibility is presumed to be shared equally.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    I’m enjoying this conversation between Paul and Parry right now. there’s a ton of truth in what they both have to say—and knowing both, there’s a bunch of brilliance in each of their minds!
    While I”ve got a ton of thoughts on hiring and firing and collaboration that I could never get out in the few minutes that I’ve got free this morning, I will say that I think principals need to be given more flexibility and freedom to get rid of the duds in our profession.
    It doesn’t do anyone any good to keep ’em around. I know that I’ve had to work on learning teams with the kinds of incompetent teachers that Parry describes and that becomes a huge drain on my own mental energies and resources because they just don’t/can’t/won’t contribute anything of value. The principals, however, couldn’t do anything to get rid of them.
    That being said, loosening the hiring and firing restrictions needs to be done uber-carefully. Like any human being, principals can let personal feelings and emotions get in the way of rational judgment—and I fear the consequences that could have on teacher evaluation.
    Long story short: Change is needed, but it must be a carefully considered revision instead of the quick hack jobs that we usually see in the policy world!

  7. Parry

    I agree that principals have a responsibility to support all teachers in improving their practices and to develop a unified vision of school direction and success. But what do you do when a teacher fails to demonstrate an ability to consistently help students learn? Let’s say you go to your neighborhood restaurant every Saturday night, and one of the waiters repeatedly gets orders wrong, messes up the bill, spills your drink in your lap, etc. At a certain point, wouldn’t you say to yourself “Maybe they’re just not cut out to be a waiter”? And at a certain point, wouldn’t that ineffective waiter cause you to consider eating somewhere else?
    Effective teachers have a huge positive impact on student learning. Ineffective teachers have a huge negative impact on student learning. Hiring and firing is most definitely one of the ways that principals can improve the overall quality of a building. In my experience, teachers who are highly effective and dedicated see the continued presence of ineffective colleagues as a slap in the face. Part of building a climate of professionalism is establishing a set of criteria of what it means to be a true “professional” educator, and sticking to your guns when people fail to meet those criteria, despite support.

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Parry asked:
    Couldn’t an alternative interpretation of the data be that principals are sharing decision-making responsibility with teachers and incorporating faculty input into school improvement efforts, but they are not necessarily incorporating all teachers into that process?
    Here’s the thing, Parry—it’s not just The Met’s survey that shows this kind of drastic disparity between principal and teacher perceptions.
    NC’s TWC survey—which gets the feedback of thousands of teachers every year from every age and experience demographic—-shows the same kinds of disparities.
    So based on that kind of data, I’d say the answer to your question for the most part is no.
    Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations where some teachers in a building are unaware of the steps that principals are taking to engage teachers in shared decision making.
    Which is still another lesson for school leaders: TRUMPET every attempt that you make to share decision-making with your faculties. When talking about decisions—and you should be talking about decisions all the time to everyone—-describe the process that led to the decision and the individuals involved.
    Doing so serves as a constant reminder to EVERY teacher that shared decision making is a part of your school’s culture—and your core values as a leader.
    And doing so would mean that even teachers not directly involved in making a school’s decisions would at least know that shared decision-making is important to their principal.
    Any of this make sense?

  9. Paul C

    I really hope that I misunderstood your comment above, but do you mean to suggest that the best way to improve student learning is to “fire and hire” your way there?
    This might be another area of great discrepancy between teachers and administrators. I believe that helping teachers to improve their practice and building a vision of success that includes every member of the school community will achieve more than unilaterally firing those who the one person in charge feels are not up to snuff. Can a climate of professionalism and collegiality exist in a building where personnel decisions are considered the vehicle for change?

  10. Parry

    Couldn’t an alternative interpretation of the data be that principals are sharing decision-making responsibility with teachers and incorporating faculty input into school improvement efforts, but they are not necessarily incorporating all teachers into that process? Maybe principals are involving somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the teachers, but they are not reaching out to everyone equally.
    Under this interpretation, there is no disparity in the data, it just reflects that not all teachers are equally involved in school-level decision making. And if that is true, is it a bad thing?

  11. Charlie A. Roy

    @ Bill
    Thanks for this post. As a high school principal I really enjoy it. I tend to believe our numbers would be more closely correlated but maybe i’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m a collaborative leader.
    In the end though I’m not really sure collaboration becomes the most important piece of school reform. The job in the end is not just to be a consensus builder but to make meaningful change that increases the quality of the learning for the students entrusted to an administrator. The power to fire and hire is essentially what makes this change possible and is in the principal’s hand.
    Now don’t get me wrong collaboration and consensus building around a shared vision essentially makes meaningful change more effective for everyone but in the end their are some people that prevent these changes from being effective. They need to go and the principal is often the only one who can show them the door.
    They might be happier somewhere else anywhere. If they really love drill / kill and busy work worksheets let them work at the worksheet school.

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