Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Looking at Student Work for Teacher Learning, Teacher Community, and School Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Looking at Student Work for Teacher Learning, Teacher Community, and School Reform

Article excerpt

Teachers are usually alone when they examine student work and think about student performance. The authors describe several projects that have enabled teachers to leave the isolation of their own classrooms and think together about student work in the broader contexts of school improvement and professional development.

IN 1995, WHEN the California Center for School Restructuring convened teams from nearly 150 elementary and secondary schools to examine the progress of local school reform and its impact on student achievement, it employed the slogan "Examining student work for what matters most."1 The precise meaning of the slogan was left open for school teams to define. For some, it meant assembling and examining school-level achievement data. For others, it meant using rubrics to assess student essays, projects, or portfolios. For still others, it meant considering samples of student work for their instructional implications or inviting a panel of students to speak about their opportunities to learn.

The years that have passed since that conference testify to a growing conviction that there is something important to be learned by giving close attention to students' experience and students' actual work. Reform advocates, professional developers, school accreditation agencies, teacher networks, and researchers have increasingly engaged teachers in looking together at samples of student work or analyzing classroom performance.2 Indeed, "looking at student work" has become the organizing theme of one website ( and a prominent component of several others.3 It forms a major activity of professional conferences, professional development programs, and reform projects.

One might reasonably ask, "What's new about teachers looking at student work?" Teachers examine artifacts produced by students all the time. They read, review, grade, and celebrate student work every day. However, they do so most often on their own, possibly in conference with a student or parent, but almost always in isolation from colleagues.

In recent years, organizations engaged in professional development and school reform have begun bringing teachers together to do collectively what they generally do alone: that is, look at student work and think about students' performance in the classroom. In addition to evaluating a teacher's instructional relationships with individual students, the purpose of these collaborative efforts is to foster teacher learning, support for professional community, and the pursuit of school reform.

These organizations have also focused on introducing these practices into the ongoing work of schools. In this regard, they have ventured into difficult terrain. It was one thing for California's restructuring schools to gather once a year at a conference to examine student work. It is quite another to transform long-standing workplace traditions of privacy and non-interference by asking teachers to put the work of their own students on the table for others to consider and discuss.

We have recently completed a two-year study that responds directly to this growing interest in looking at student work. In reviewing published descriptions and studies, we discovered a wide range of purposes and practices subsumed under the broad descriptive term "looking at student work." The good news for advocates of these practices is that there is emerging evidence that some versions of looking at student work yield benefits for teaching and learning.4 However, the available research gives little sense of how any demonstrated benefits might in fact be achieved.5 While there are promising precedents, the literature offers few specifics regarding the actual practices that teachers employ in looking at student work. Our project attempted to make some headway on that problem.

Through case studies of teacher groups working with three nationally recognized organizations -- Harvard Project Zero, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Academy for Educational Development -- we sought to identify specific practices employed by teachers who come together to examine student work in the context of broader programs of school improvement and school-based professional development. …

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