Hernandez: When Challenges Are Too Big for Any One Educator, All Teachers Need to Row Together

The K-12 ocean is big. Helping students learn to read well, play a musical instrument, and explore what it means to be human takes years — decades, even. The challenge is bigger than any one educator.

To navigate this ocean, educators need to row together. Some schools row together with a shared curriculum. Others align around great teaching practices. Still others take a common approach to cultivating school culture, values, and relationships. And some do all of the above.

When adults row together, children benefit from the cumulative impact of their efforts.

But here the waters get murky. Treating teaching as a team sport can be in tension with our ideas about teacher freedom and how to best honor educator expertise. Does asking teachers to row together hinder creativity and lead to professional despair? Or does it give teachers the foundation to have their greatest impact?

The most successful schools find ways to navigate this tension. We can debate the how, but both students and educators are better off when we row together in our schools.

Rowing Together Helps Kids Learn

The reading ocean is big. A report by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated that students need to learn approximately 180,000 distinct vocabulary items to be proficient readers, while the average high school senior may know 80,000 — a gap of 100,000 words.

If individual teachers explicitly taught students 20 words a week for 13 years, and the students mastered all that vocabulary, that equals only about 10,000 words.

Fortunately, students have other ways of learning to read. For example, students who have lots of knowledge about a topic, like Greek mythology, have an advantage in picking up new vocabulary and ideas in that context. This is what education experts like University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham and Thomas B. Fordham Institute senior fellow Robert Pondiscio mean when they stress the importance of building students’ knowledge through a content-rich curriculum.

“The challenge, then,” writes Brown University visiting scholar Marilyn Jager Adams, “lies in organizing our reading regimens in every subject and every class such that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge that will be needed for the next.”

To help kids become capable readers, educators need to row together on texts that build knowledge, vocabulary, and deep understanding over time. And research shows that high-quality reading content and materials raise math achievement, too.

Herein lies the tension. Commiting to a common curriculum means each teacher cedes control over creating classroom materials to other expert educators. Catholic school superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests that a common curriculum does not diminish teachers but rather amplifies their expertise, enabling them to “focus their very real and creative energy and expertise on unlocking the potential of our curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students they serve every day.”

When We Row Together, We Can Learn Together

I recently walked through first- and fourth-grade classrooms at Achievement First, where students were asked to draw a visual representation of a math problem. None of the children jumped right to an answer. They drew their models, discussed them, compared them, revised them, and only when they were satisfied with their representations did they go on to solve the problem.

Interestingly, the teaching methods used in both classrooms were the same, although executed a bit differently for 7-year-olds and 10-year-olds.

I left the school with two thoughts. One, it takes a good teacher to do these lessons well. Teachers had to really understand the problems and the different ways their students would approach them. Teachers’ questions mattered. Good questions encouraged deep thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of different representations, while poor ones rushed kids toward an answer, closing off opportunities for learning. There were no foolproof scripts for teachers to follow, just training, preparation, coaching, and practice.

My second thought was that because the teaching methods were so clear and common across classrooms, I felt like I, as a teacher, could be coached to learn them. And, in fact, the school used the same math coach for both classrooms, and that coach provided real-time feedback on a common set of practices.

At Achievement First, professional learning and coaching became purposeful (i.e., tied to what actually happens in classrooms with students) only once all the educators decided to row together with a shared vision for excellent math instruction, a common curriculum, normed expectations for excellent student work, etc. All the pieces were aligned for adults — and kids. (Achievement First shares its curriculum for free and works with other schools to help align their math programs.)

Building Schools That Honor Students and Teachers

But there is more than one way to cross the ocean. Brooke Charter Schools in Boston, considered one of the best public school systems in America, does not insist on a shared curriculum, yet its educators hold hands around a vision for excellent teaching  —  what they call Elements of Effective Instruction. Brooke’s students are expected to productively struggle with content and think deeply, which means teachers can use only the highest-quality content to realize this vision. Teachers are then trained and coached (using lots of video) throughout their careers.

So although Brooke and Achievement First schools look different, their teams are highly aligned around a common vision and approach. This alignment helps them develop educators with focus and conviction. And, in turn, their educators form teams that help students become their best selves.

Rowing together in our schools is good for students and adults. It is also scary. As teachers, we have all lived through poorly conceived reforms where opting out felt like the appropriate moral response.

But if we treat education like making a quilt, where every teacher creates his or her own square and hands it to the student to sew together, most students, and especially our most vulnerable students, will never reach their potential as learners.

So here we are, in unfamiliar waters. We do not honor educators by giving them the freedom to stand further apart from each other. We honor them by creating schools where students flourish because adults come closer together.

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation’s best public charter schools. He is a former high school math teacher and lives with his family near Boulder, Colorado.

Disclosure: Charter School Growth Fund provides philanthropic support to Achievement First and Brooke Charter Schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, the Karsh Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, and the William E. Simon Foundation provide funding to Charter School Growth Fund and The 74.

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