Tennessee principals embrace teaching collaboration model from Shanghai

A trip to Shanghai last year was an “aha moment” for Louise Claney, the former principal of Collierville Elementary School.

In the schools she visited, teachers regularly observed and evaluated other teachers, and lesson plans were living documents shared by everyone, created through teamwork and updated according to teachers’ experiences in the classrooms. 

Claney knew that facilitating the collaboration she saw in Shanghai in Collierville would be tough. Like most schools in Tennessee, Collierville’s teachers’ only feedback was from administrators, and lesson plans weren’t shared. Teachers spent most of the day with students and only met to share ideas once a month. The practice of teaching in the United States has historically been considered a private affair, after all.

Despite the challenges, when Claney returned from Shanghai, using the help of Vanderbilt University researchers, she trained her teachers and gave them the time to have their own evaluation and feedback groups.

A recently-released study said test scores rose at Collierville Elementary and 17 other schools that used the training method, called Teacher Peer Excellence Groups. The bridging of Shanghai and Tennessee schools was the result of a partnership between Tennessee’s Department of Education and Vanderbilt University and funded by a $700,000 federal grant.

Researchers also cited at the schools testing the model improved teaching skills, because teachers receive immediate feedback on their performance, and improved evaluation skills from principals since they also learn more about teaching.

This year, the model is expanding to more schools in the state, and the Vanderbilt researchers are working to help entire districts adopt it. Loudon County, a small district in East Tennessee, is already using the evaluation groups in all of its schools.

According to the practice, teachers create a lesson plan together then observe each other teaching it and revise the plan accordingly. Xiu Cravens, the lead researcher for the project,  said the model varies from school-to-school, but has three “non-negotiable” components: teachers must have opportunities to observe each other; the collective work from the groups must be accessible and amendable; and teachers must be able to defend their changes.

“It’s pretty organic, actually,” Cravens said. “We wanted to say, ‘This is the spirit. Here are the things that are non-negotiable, but each district will be different. As long as you can be true to the spirit (and) find a way it works for your school.'”

Claney broke teachers up into grade-level teams of math and English teachers. Each week, the teachers chose a specific teaching skill to focus on, like how to phrase questions to students. One teacher would be observed, while teaching assistants manned the other teachers’ classrooms. During the following period, all of the teachers’ students went to electives, so the teachers could focus on writing feedback for the teacher observed. Each teacher was observed about every six weeks.

“Scheduling was the biggest challenge,” she said.

Claney is now the director of curriculum and accountability for Collierville Public Schools, and helping to spread the model to other schools in the area. She and the teachers who participated in the evaluation groups are speaking about their experience at a state conference in October. 

The most surprising fans of the model was students, Claney said.

“The students love for you to be in their classroom and see what they’re doing, and they love to show off,” she said. “If I was in the hallway, the kids would ask, Mrs. Claney, when will we be observed again?”