Why focus on teacher collaboration?

Teachers in most American schools work in isolation, separated from other teachers, making it difficult to benefit from their colleagues’ expertise or to share their expertise with others about how to help more students learn. This way of structuring schools has often been referred to as the “egg crate” model: compartmentalized, lonely and not optimal for students or teachers. While collaboration is routine in professions such as scientific research, health care, architecture and the performing arts, most schools are not structured so that teachers can learn from one another, coordinate lessons, discuss data or share ideas.

However, a growing body of research shows that when teachers work more collaboratively, student outcomes can improve, teachers can be more satisfied in their jobs and teacher turnover can decrease. A focus on advancing teaching and learning by fostering collaboration stands in contrast to a focus on improving and assessing teachers solely as individuals. How can teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards begin to understand what collaboration might mean for their schools, districts and students?

Teacher Collaboration In Perspective, a joint project of the Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda, is designed to contribute to a better-informed dialogue about how teachers can work more collaboratively. This Guide to Research provides a nonpartisan, nonideological and easily digestible summary of key research on teacher collaboration, including studies that are typically accessible only to academics.

Understanding research on how teachers work collaboratively can be challenging for several reasons. Collaboration is not a goal in itself or a specific prescription for change. Instead, collaborative practices take many different forms and go by many different names. Schools, districts or individual departments do not necessarily institute only one collaborative practice but may foster collaboration in various ways, making it difficult to tease out the effects of any single approach to collaboration. These challenges highlight the value of getting a handle on the big picture from multiple studies, rather than focusing only on findings from a single piece of research.

Key questions about collaboration remain unanswered. For example, questions remain about how enhancing collaboration compares with and can be used together with other strategies to bolster student learning. There is limited research on how to build collaboration in school settings where teachers do not already collaborate. While a growing body of research shows what happens when teachers work more collaboratively and how teachers learn by working more closely with their peers, research thus far provides only limited details about how the complex process of teachers’ growth leads to changes in their work with students. Researchers have also not determined which approaches to collaboration or elements of those approaches are most effective.

Much of the research, but not all of it, focuses on identifying and examining schools that are already collaborative, rather than studying how to transform schools from isolated to collaborative environments. Therefore, questions remain about how to foster collaboration where it does not already exist and how long it may take for collaboration to yield results. In addition, questions remain about the costs for schools and districts to implement various collaborative practices, how to sustain collaboration over time and whether making teachers’ workplaces more collaborative can inadvertently marginalize some teachers and students.

Fostering collaboration among teachers requires changing how schools operate. It is difficult to do well and therefore is not a guaranteed path to improved outcomes. Nonetheless, this Guide to Research presents evidence that shows fostering a more collaborative workplace for teachers does hold promise for schools and districts as they seek to advance teaching and learning.

This Guide to Research as well as the other resources developed for this project—a Discussion Guide for Teachers and Principals and a set of Critical Questions for Superintendents and School Board Members—are designed to help educators and leaders begin to understand collaborative practices among teachers and weigh decisions about why, whether and how to foster more collaboration in their schools and districts.

How does fostering collaboration differ from traditional ways of organizing teachers’ work?

Interest in teacher collaboration grows out of the perceived shortcomings of the prevailing “egg crate” model of schools. Sociologist Dan Lortie used the term to emphasize the heavily individualistic structure and culture of teaching in his classic 1975 book, Schoolteacher. Lortie described how teachers had to contend with uncertainties about curricula, instruction and assessment largely on their own.1 He described teachers retreating into their own classrooms and defending themselves from outsiders such as principals, parents and other teachers. Lortie characterized teachers as lacking a “shared technical culture” that would provide both motivations to work together and resources for doing so.2

Since then, the metaphor of the “egg crate” has been used to describe and criticize the prevailing organization of American schools. Physically, many schools are arranged like egg crates, with students and teachers compartmentalized in classrooms arranged along corridors. The egg crate metaphor extends to how teachers in many schools work: separated from other teachers. It also describes how some school leaders and reformers think about teachers: as easily swappable or removable.

The egg crate model remains predominant today in schools across the country, across regions and grade levels. This means that collaborative approaches to organizing teachers’ work are relatively scarce, particularly at the secondary level. For instance, in an extensive four-year study by researchers with the Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, only three out of 16 secondary schools—including private and public, ranging in size, student demographics and urbanicity—across seven districts in two states were found to have school-level structures in place to foster collaborative learning and a strong professional community.3 On the department level, the study found the same of only two out of 32 departments studied across the 16 schools.4

Changing to a collaborative model is likely difficult. Some even argue that it is not ideal or even natural for teachers to work in a more collaborative model. Michael Huberman made the case that teachers are “independent artisans,” asserting that teachers and their methods are and should be individual and improvisational. As a result, he argued that collaboration among groups of teachers at the schoolwide level is not only unnecessary, but nearly impossible to force teachers to do.5

Joan E. Talbert and Milbrey W. McLaughlin sought to determine if there was merit to Huberman’s cautionary message about collaboration's potential to interfere with teacher artisanship. In reexamining data from earlier research, they found that in high schools with weak teacher communities, innovative teachers did not exercise as much independence and were demoralized by their colleagues’ lack of investment in improving learning for all students, especially those who are underperforming. In schools with strong traditional communities, innovative teaching ideas tended to get pushed aside by narrowed curricula, increased testing and persistent academic tracking. But in strong collaborative teaching communities, teachers were able to generate and try out new ideas with the aim of helping more students better engage with school and content. Instead of being an impediment to teacher artisanship, collaborative teaching communities allowed it to flourish.6

Yet according to Susan Moore Johnson’s perspective on what the literature has shown, the typical “atomized” egg crate way of organizing schools does not serve students or teachers, whose “experiences and opportunities for learning are limited because they fail to benefit from the varied models of instruction practiced by their colleagues or to adjust their teaching in response to what students learn or fail to learn in other grades and classes. When schools are organized like egg crates, important information about the challenges that teachers encounter, the problems that puzzle them, and the expertise they might offer their peers remains limited by the confines of the classroom.” 7 Working together may make it easier for teachers to identify and address problems in students’ progress, share information about individual students from grade to grade or develop curricula and approaches to teaching that are consistent and coherent across grades and subject areas.

While autonomy and privacy may sound appealing, more than two-thirds of both older and younger teachers in a national survey said they prefer a school characterized by collaboration among teachers and where they get help from instructional administrators over a school with “less collaboration, but where teachers are freer to design their own lesson plans.”8 But K–12 schools have not historically been expected to embrace or foster collaboration. Research by Susan J. Rosenholtz suggests the egg crate model creates uncertainty about how to help more students learn and about how to determine whether teaching is successful—a problem for teachers at many levels of the profession but particularly for new teachers.9 Education reforms and accountability models that assess and reward each teacher based on his or her effectiveness at raising students’ test scores build on and may reinforce the view of teaching as an individualistic, isolated activity.10

Collaboration may be scarce, but research is strengthening the case that quality collaboration leads to better teaching.

Because the egg crate model is so predominant, much of the research that we describe in this guide involves identifying or introducing some collaborative practices into what remain fundamentally isolated and isolating settings for teachers. Little is known about schools organized to be collaborative from the ground up, or what such schools would be like for students, teachers and communities over the long term. However, while collaboration may be scarce, research is continually strengthening the case that quality collaboration leads to better teaching. For example, at “Railside,”* an urban California high school serving a diverse, low-income student body with many English-language learners, quality collaboration among the teachers in the math department led to the development, implementation and refinement of a groundbreaking equity-focused pedagogy that transformed student learning and achievement and received national renown.11

Using this Guide to Research

This research guide synthesizes research on teacher collaboration. Its goal is to help teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members reflect upon whether and how creating conditions for teachers to work more collaboratively might benefit students and teachers in their schools and districts.

“Collaboration” includes a broad category of practices, often used in conjunction with other school improvement efforts. It is not one specific intervention whose effects can be neatly isolated. Researchers have therefore defined it in many different ways. When possible, we try to explain how the research we summarize in this guide defines and measures collaboration. However, we found in preparing this guide that not all researchers clearly define what collaboration means in their studies or specify what collaborative practices teachers are using in the schools they studied.

We therefore encourage readers to bear in mind that many questions about teacher collaboration have been addressed in only one or two studies or have not been addressed at all. The final section of the guide highlights some particularly important unanswered questions.


*Railside is a pseudonym given to the high school by the authors.

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