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November 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 3

Making Teacher Teams Work

To make an impact on learning, teacher data-inquiry teams need the right kinds of support.

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Top-performing education systems such as Japan, Singapore, and British Columbia use teacher-led collaborative inquiry cycles—in which small groups of teachers study and address a problem of practice—as the cornerstone of their professional development (Jensen et al., 2016). Driven by teachers, ongoing, focused on content, and embedded in the immediate school context, data-inquiry cycles meet the criteria for effective professional development (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017).
Why, then, has so much research on data-driven inquiry shown disappointing results? Several large-scale research studies have found that teacher data-inquiry cycles, often at the heart of data-driven instruction initiatives, do not have a widespread, positive impact on student learning (Ronfeldt et al., 2015; West, Morton, & Herlihy, 2016).
Part of the problem, I believe, has to do with the kinds of training and support that teacher inquiry teams receive—or don't receive. It's important to note that, despite the generally lukewarm research findings on teacher data-inquiry cycles, there have been bright spots. Studies have identified numerous examples of teacher teams whose data-inquiry cycles do improve instruction and student outcomes (Carlson, Borman, & Robinson, 2011; Gallimore et al., 2009; Lai & McNaughton, 2016; van Geel et al., 2016). The fact that some teacher teams improve student outcomes using data-inquiry cycles while others do not raises important questions about differences in implementation and support.
In my own research, I've found that data-inquiry cycles work best when they are embedded in school practice and when teachers have the resources and backing they need to use inquiry to change their practice (Lockwood, 2017). The disappointing results of large-scale studies may be attributable to the fact that teachers often respond to trends in data by regrouping students or by re-teaching the material in the same way they taught it originally (Farrell & Marsh, 2016). Without changes in instruction, student outcomes are unlikely to improve. But making such changes often requires expertise that a teacher team may not have on its own.

Making a Plan

As an example of an inquiry cycle, let's consider the Data Wise Improvement Process (Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2013; see Table 1). Data Wise was developed by educators in Boston Public Schools and researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is currently used in schools and systems all over the world. Data Wise is a step-by-step process organized into three phases: Prepare, Inquire, and Act.

Table 1. The Data Wise Improvement Process

Making Teacher Teams Work - table

Prepare phaseStep 1: Organize for Collaborative Work
Step 2: Build Assessment Literacy
Inquire phaseStep 3: Create Data Overview
Step 4: Dig into Student Data
Step 5: Examine Instruction
Act phaseStep 6: Develop Action Plan
Step 7: Plan to Assess Progress
Step 8: Act and Assess
Source: Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2013.
What does a Data Wise cycle look like in action? Imagine that a group of 6th grade English teachers is embarking on a cycle based on the schoolwide focus area of writing. The whole faculty has looked at large-scale data and identified a priority question: "What analytic writing skills do our students struggle with most?" Back in their team meeting, the 6th grade English teachers use a discussion protocol to analyze student essays on the novel Tuck Everlasting, responses to in-class writing prompts on school violence, and open-response answers from a recent test at the end of a poetry unit. Using the priority question as a guide, they consider their student strengths and challenges with analytic writing and arrive at the following learner-centered problem: "While students accurately identify textual evidence to support their claims, they struggle to connect claims together into a cohesive, overarching argument."
The teachers then step back to look at their own practice, observing one another teach analytic writing lessons and considering what they can learn from their colleagues and where they have room to improve as a team. This is an important moment in the cycle, where teachers make explicit the connection between students' learning and their own teaching. On this basis, they agree on the problem of practice: "Though we explicitly teach students to structure paragraphs with the claim-evidence-reasoning framework, we have not yet taught students how to write effective thesis statements."
The teachers then draft an action plan to address the problem of practice. First, they will draw on resources and expertise outside of their team to deepen their understanding of how to teach thesis statements. Using that new learning, they will then codesign and teach a unit on thesis statements to their students. As they begin implementing their plan, they invite their district's literacy director to an upcoming team meeting. She accepts and begins to cull together resources for the team. They also consult with colleagues who teach elementary and high school English to better understand the instruction about thesis statements students receive at each stage. They look at student work samples from different grades to identify typical learning progressions students go through as they hone their skills in writing thesis statements. Finally, they draft their new unit plan and prepare to teach it.
The teachers also draft a separate plan to assess their progress. In the short term, the team will observe one another's classes to collect evidence of how students are responding to the new lesson plans. They will also "audit" in-class assignments to look for any changes in student thesis statements and arguments after the initial series of lessons. In the medium term, they will assign and grade together a common essay project. Finally, teachers will compare students' writing scores on the state test from one year to the next for evidence of the long-term impact of their work.
This type of learning experience can be powerful. It is teacher-directed, yet aligned with the schoolwide focus area. It is ongoing, but does not drag on indefinitely; it follows a clear process with a beginning, middle, and end. It also does not happen by accident.

Supporting Collaborative Inquiry

What do school and district leaders need to do to support teachers in this type of professional learning? Some districts, including the large urban district in the Northeastern United States that I studied for my dissertation on supporting data inquiry in schools, have hired seasoned educators to serve as inquiry facilitators and help teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry (Lockwood, 2017). The team of inquiry facilitators I studied met regularly with teacher teams to help them establish and maintain collaborative structures; support them in improving data use; teach the Data Wise process; prepare team facilitators to lead collaborative inquiry; and, perhaps most important, connect teams with instructional expertise. Each of these areas, I found, is critical to the long-term goal of leveraging data-inquiry teams to change instructional practice.

1. Helping teams establish and maintain collaborative structures.

In the district I studied during the 2014–2015 school year, the inquiry facilitators' first goal was to teach the teacher teams they coached to have meetings that met the standards of Meeting Wise (Boudett & City, 2014), a book about how to make the most of collaborative time. The purpose of data inquiry is for teachers to work together to improve their practice; without effective and efficient meeting structures, this goal is very difficult to achieve. Inquiry facilitators trained teams in these basic, but often overlooked, steps:
  • Circulate an agenda in advance, with clear objectives for the meeting.
  • Assign a note taker and timekeeper.
  • Set aside time to identify and commit to next steps.
  • Collect participant feedback after every meeting about what worked well and what could be improved.

2. Supporting teams to improve data use.

The inquiry facilitators coached teams on displaying student data, reading score reports, and following principles of responsible data use, such as the importance of triangulating data from various sources. This helped the teams gain deeper insight into what students knew and were able to do in a given area.

3. Teaching teams an improvement process.

The inquiry facilitators in this district taught teacher team members each step of Data Wise and coached teams through the process. It is important for a team to adopt a specific improvement process so that all participants have a shared understanding of the steps they will follow in each cycle and a solid framework to guide their work.

4. Preparing teacher team facilitators to lead collaborative inquiry independently.

A major part of the inquiry facilitators' role was to prepare team facilitators to lead the process independently. This often involved using a gradual release of responsibility model, where the inquiry facilitator progressively extended more of the responsibilities for leading meetings to the team facilitator. Inquiry facilitators and team facilitators would also meet regularly—as often as twice a month—to debrief the previous team meetings and plan upcoming meetings.

5. Brokering instructional strategies.

The inquiry facilitators I observed originally assumed that when teachers worked through the Data Wise cycle, the skills and knowledge on a teacher team would be greater than the sum of its parts, and that teachers would share their strengths and bolster one another's weaknesses as they identified the need for and adopted new instructional approaches. They soon realized, however, that if they did not help teams choose new instructional approaches to address the problems the teams found in their data, teams tended to default to re-teaching content or skills in the same way they had originally. If members of a teacher team did not have significant content knowledge or pedagogical content knowledge that was different from and complementary to their teammates', they could not offer new instructional strategies to one another.
To address this problem, the inquiry facilitators encouraged teachers to reach out to subject-level experts, such as instructional coaches or curriculum specialists from the central office, as the teachers in the previous example did. Since the inquiry facilitators worked in the district's central office and knew the relevant subject experts in the system, they often facilitated these connections. In addition, they helped teachers find and review relevant research on potential instructional approaches that would address their problem of practice.

Teacher-Led, With Support

At this point, you might be thinking: If this is an article about teacher-led learning, why is so much of it about the role of district staff? Isn't adding district-level support to an inquiry cycle taking away the most important element of such initiatives—that they are not just another top-down professional development initiative, but a process that teacher teams own?
Stepping back from teacher professional development, it may be helpful to consider another type of learning, the kind we might see in a 6th grade science class with an expert teacher. Some of us have been privileged to observe this type of class. Twenty-five 11-year-olds enter a classroom and find, say, a tub of water, sheets of aluminum foil, and a pile of pennies on each table. Their teacher tells them to work in teams to build boats that can hold as many pennies as possible. The students get to work, and the teacher circulates, asking questions. In the second half of the class period, the students compete to see whose boat can hold the most pennies, and then the teacher leads a debrief. Did some boats sink? Why? Did some boats hold a lot of pennies? Why? What did the students learn from their successes and mistakes, and what would they do differently next time? The teacher gives them words to label the concepts they have discovered: buoyancy, displacement, and surface area.
Would the students have learned as much in the class if the teacher had simply stood at the board, defined vocabulary words, and told them how boats work? Almost certainly not. In the example, they discovered these concepts on their own, learning in an engaged, experiential way they never would have if they hadn't gotten their hands wet. But by the same token, what would have happened if the teacher had set out the materials and left the room? Without a teacher's support and explicit instruction, the students would not likely have learned all they could from their experimentation, particularly in a way that would build their disciplinary understanding and help them apply the concepts in subsequent lessons or projects.
Of course, there are important differences between designing learning experiences for 6th graders and for teachers, but in either case, learners need to make meaning for themselves, and they will benefit from support from someone with greater expertise who can scaffold the experience for them (without controlling it). Either of these elements in isolation will not generate the quality of learning that could occur if both elements are present.
If inquiry cycles do not result in improved student outcomes, it may be because the teachers were left to experiment without the types of guidance that could help them make a significant change and improvement in their teaching.

Transforming Instructional Practice

Once teachers have learned and gone through a data-inquiry process, they will be able to facilitate the process on their own. Nevertheless, teams will benefit from continuing to consult with a content expert to help them identify and adopt new instructional approaches to address the issues they uncover in their data. Though some teacher teams include content and pedagogy experts who can teach their colleagues such new approaches, many teams have members with similar knowledge levels and skills and need an outside perspective to show them what they do not know.
School leaders should expect that for data-inquiry cycles to succeed, teacher teams will need instructional support. In the case of collaborative data-inquiry cycles, teacher-led shouldn't mean teachers are on their own. Schools must give them resources they need to meaningfully alter instructional practice.

Guiding Questions

› Do teachers teams in your school have enough support to make meaningful instructional changes? Based on your reading of this article, what additional resources might they need?

› Think about your own experiences working on teacher teams. What conditions contributed to their success or shortcomings?

› How can school leaders balance the need to support teacher teams with the need to give them enough autonomy to "make meaning for themselves"? Is this a challenge in your school or district? Why or why not?

References

Boudett, K. P., & City, E. A. (2014). Meeting wise: Making the most of collaborative time for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murnane, R. J. (Eds.). (2013). Data Wise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Carlson, D., Borman, G. D., & Robinson, M. (2011). A multistate district-level cluster randomized trial of the impact of data-driven reform on reading and mathematics achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 378–398.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Farrell, C. C., & Marsh, J. A. (2016). Contributing conditions: A qualitative comparative analysis of teachers' instructional responses to data. Teaching and Teacher Education, 60(Supplement C), 398–412.

Gallimore, R., Ermeling, B., Saunders, W., & Goldenberg, C. (2009). Moving the learning of teaching closer to practice: Teacher education implications of school-based inquiry teams. The Elementary School Journal, 109(5), 537–553.

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems, Australian Edition. Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy.

Lai, M. K., & McNaughton, S. (2016). The impact of data use professional development on student achievement. Teaching and Teacher Education, 60, 434–443.

Lockwood, M. G. (2017). Refining the art of coaching: Organizational learning on a district data inquiry team. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/33052846

Ronfeldt, M., Farmer, S. O., McQueen, K., & Grissom, J. A. (2015). Teacher collaboration in instructional teams and student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 52(3), 475–514.

van Geel, M., Keuning, T., Visscher, A. J., & Fox, J. P. (2016). Assessing the effects of a school-wide data-based decision-making intervention on student achievement growth in primary schools. American Educational Research Journal, 53(2), 360–394.

West, M. R., Morton, B. A., & Herlihy, C. M. (2016). Achievement network's investing in innovation expansion: Impacts on educator practice and student achievement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Center for Education Policy Research.

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