Does teacher collaboration improve teacher retention, satisfaction or instructional practice?

Teasing out the effects of a specific collaborative practice on teacher retention and satisfaction can be difficult. Schools that provide positive, healthy working environments for teachers probably do so in a variety of ways. Therefore, while there is evidence that schools with lower teacher turnover tend to be more collaborative, those schools are likely also doing many things to retain and develop teachers that may be unrelated to collaboration per se.

In their vast review of 82 studies focused on teacher collaboration and its potential outcomes in the United States and other countries, Katrien Vangrieken and colleagues concluded that while the literature they reviewed demonstrated positive outcomes of collaboration for students, teachers and entire schools, teachers “appear to profit most from collaboration.”39 They concluded that collaboration is associated with teachers progressing in their job performance and on a personal level in terms of feeling more motivated, experiencing less isolation and having better morale. They noted that these positive consequences for teachers can be connected to positive effects on student achievement.40

Schools with lower teacher turnover tend to be more collaborative.

Turnover—meaning how many teachers leave a school for other schools or for other professions entirely—can be costly and damaging for several reasons. Hiring new teachers requires time and money. New hires take time to adapt and respond to a school’s climate and procedures. When teachers leave a school, professional expertise and collegial connections can be lost. Turnover may also reduce trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.

Collaboration is one factor that can help teachers feel more committed to their school and to teaching.

Collaboration appears to be one of several factors that can help make teachers feel more committed to their school and to teaching as a profession, according to a review of several studies of teacher collegiality.41 But researchers have not necessarily tried to capture the effects of collaboration alone on teacher turnover. Nor have they compared collaboration with other factors that could be important in reducing turnover. Instead, researchers often look at collaboration as part of a larger picture of what can help reduce turnover.

For example, researchers in one study found that New York City public middle schools that were rated more highly on a combination of factors—school safety, academic expectations for students, principal or administration leadership, as well as teacher relationships and collaboration—retained more teachers annually.42 Similarly, in Massachusetts schools with “favorable work environments”—defined in the study as collegial relationships among teachers, good principal leadership and a school culture of trust, respect and openness—teachers were more satisfied in their jobs and less likely to leave their school or to leave teaching entirely than colleagues in schools with less favorable climates.43

Turnover is particularly high among teachers who are just beginning in the profession.44 But according to a nationally representative survey of beginning teachers, shared planning time and mentorship, as well as other types of collaboration, are associated with reductions in leaving a particular school and reductions in leaving the teaching profession.45 According to researchers who conducted in-depth interviews with teachers in their first four years of work, beginning teachers felt more comfortable at schools where they received more support from their colleagues.46 Having a mentor in one’s field and being part of a network of teachers outside one’s own school have also been found to be associated with reduced turnover among beginning teachers.47 (For more on this topic, see the subsection on mentoring.)

Although turnover is disruptive to schools, one case study of a rural high school described an instance in which the introduction of collaboration, rather than its absence, appeared to contribute to an increase in teacher attrition. After the principal initiated new collaboration-focused reforms, 18 teachers—roughly half of the school's faculty—left the school before the start of the next year. The principal herself noted that the turnover gave her “the opportunity to hire a team of teachers committed to our kids”—and presumably to the collaborative reforms as well.48 The school saw significant increases in student achievement after implementing those reforms. Anthony Bryk and colleagues also note that Hancock Elementary, one Chicago elementary school in their large-scale longitudinal study, experienced teacher turnover during the principal’s efforts to build professional capacity and a professional development structure, along with other collaborative reforms and instructional improvements. According to the researchers, the teachers who left were those “who did not come on board with reform efforts.” Eight years after the principal began her tenure, Hancock Elementary ranked as one of the most improved schools in reading and math in the city.49

There is some limited evidence of a relationship between teacher job satisfaction, teacher collaboration and student achievement.

Research in other fields has found that job satisfaction can have a positive impact on job performance. Limited research has examined the extent to which job satisfaction among teachers has an impact on student achievement.

Neena Banerjee and colleagues examined the extent to which the existence of collaboration among teachers and of a professional community at a school—defined in the study as school spirit, a sense of collegiality, continuous learning and sharing of ideas among teachers, agreement on school mission and better communication from school administrators regarding a central mission—mediates the relationship between teacher job satisfaction and student achievement. The study drew data from more than 5,800 public school students, who were surveyed from kindergarten through fifth grade as part of the National Center for Education Statistics’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, and their teachers.50

Corroborating previous research, Banerjee and colleagues found a modest but positive relationship between teacher job satisfaction and student growth. However, this relationship was seen only in reading growth, not math growth. In addition, the researchers found that students gained in math and reading achievement in elementary schools characterized by a strong professional community even if they had been assigned over multiple years to different teachers reporting low job satisfaction. Professional community in the school was hypothesized to lessen at least some of the presumably adverse consequences of having a teacher who reported low job satisfaction.51

Future research on collaboration should further investigate the relationship between teacher job satisfaction and types of teacher collaboration, and the combined effect on student achievement.

Collaboration may do more to advance teachers’ instructional practices than do learning opportunities for individual teachers.

Education reform efforts often try to improve student learning and achievement by changing teachers’ instructional practices. But within the prevailing egg crate model, these attempts—such as introducing new curriculum materials, establishing learning standards, or providing professional development through in-service training—are often aimed at changing instruction by individual teachers. A growing body of research explores how collaborating might lead to changes in teachers’ instructional practices.

A case study using surveys of teachers across 30 elementary schools in a southeastern U.S. urban school district found that the frequency of collaborative discussion with peers had one of the largest significant effects on teachers’ self-reported changes in instruction, in both math and reading, compared with various formal learning opportunities as well as with other “on the job” learning opportunities.52

Evidence from 19 European Union countries included in the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey indicates that teachers who collaborate are more likely to report using innovative teaching methods. It also found that collaborative teachers report more confidence in their teaching and greater job satisfaction.53

Teachers have been found to value collaboration for a variety of reasons, including moral support, but sometimes voice concerns and report experiencing conflict.

Some teachers value the moral support that comes from collaboration.54 Teachers in several studies say it is helpful knowing that they are not alone in facing challenges or uncertainty.55 They have described the frequent contact with their colleagues in collaboration as an accountability mechanism similar to having a workout buddy.56 In a study of teachers at four Australian schools that were trying to implement more collaborative practices, some teachers felt collaboration improved morale, made the school environment warmer and reduced isolation and workload. However, this same study found that other teachers were negative about the collaborative practices, citing larger workloads, pressure to conform and a feeling of lost autonomy.57

Teachers describe collaboration as an accountability mechanism similar to having a workout buddy.

Research on what teachers gain from collaboration may be limited in part because collaborative practices thus far tend to be add-ons to schools that remain fundamentally isolating, making it difficult to know what the more far-reaching effects of sustained and systematic collaboration may be for teachers or for students. However, teachers may feel emboldened by knowing that other teachers will take risks and try new strategies, according to a small case study of teacher collaboration.58 In that study, teachers explained that knowing that their colleagues were also trying new activities and were willing to discuss successes and failures inspired them to take risks that they would not have taken otherwise.59 Another study described teachers challenging one another, raising questions and sharing ideas during “data-driven decision-making” meetings about student achievement.60

Case studies of two urban public middle schools found that collaborating revealed differences of opinion and led to conflict—but that those conflicts created a context for learning and growth.61 Similar benefits of conflict emerged in a study by Pam Grossman, Sam Wineburg and Stephen Woolworth that evaluated a project to establish a professional community among an interdisciplinary group of teachers at an urban U.S. high school. In that study, coming to terms with differences and disagreements was part of what enabled the group to move from “pseudocommunity” to something more robust.62

Collaboration involves vulnerability and difficult discussions among teachers.

School climates or educational reforms that treat teachers as lone individuals—who either do their jobs well or are “bad eggs” needing to be replaced—may leave teachers unable to be open, trusting and vulnerable enough to seek or provide support. Asking for help or admitting a struggle in such climates may be seen as signs of weakness, incompetence or inefficiency.63 Even if they want help, teachers have been shown to avoid asking for it in climates where there is a stigma attached to doing so.64

Teachers have been shown to avoid asking for help in climates where there is a stigma attached to doing so.

Collaborative practices can flounder if teachers are unable to be vulnerable. For example, researchers Roger A. Stewart and Jonathan L. Brendefur studied groups of teachers that they were encouraging and working with to collaborate around lesson study. (For more on this topic, see the subsection on lesson study.) In each of the groups, teachers were reticent to volunteer to be observed or videotaped while teaching or to share student work, which were key elements of the researchers’ proposed intervention that was designed to help teachers work together. The researchers attributed this fear to the fact that the teachers’ school cultures were characterized by isolation and were not collaborative. While most groups were successful in overcoming this fear, one group in particular could not get past it and ended up disbanding.65 Similarly, a case study described the need for teachers to have uncomfortable conversations and “name elephants in the room,” something the study noted school leadership can help teachers do.66 (For more on this topic, see the section on principals.) Teachers’ unwillingness to have these difficult conversations may reflect the constraints created by schools that treat teachers as autonomous but replaceable. Teachers who seek to foster a more nourishing, inventive professional environment may even be seen as threats.67

Ilana Seidel Horn and Judith Warren Little closely observed two collaborative, improvement-oriented groups of teachers. When those teams of teachers came together, the nature of their conversations differed. The two groups developed different norms regarding how much to disclose to one another, how to reassure one another that the challenges they faced were normal and how much they discussed why those challenges were occurring. Horn and Little concluded that these differences in how the groups of teachers talked with one another explained the different degrees of progress they made on their shared goals, with the group that was more successful at discussing and normalizing problems making more progress.68


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