Imagine for a minute that you are running your own law school. Got it? Now imagine a wealthy philanthropist gifted you $80 million to improve your law students’ performance. But there’s a condition. You have to spend the money on individual law teachers’ salaries and development. No-brainer right? You’d think that student achievement would improve. But you might be wrong. What if it isn’t (just) about money? Could collaborative planning at law school be a better way to improve law students’ performance?
Money can’t buy you (academic) love?
The example isn’t entirely imaginary. Between 2009 and 2016 the Gates Foundation (yes, that Bill Gates) gave $575 million to seven school districts in the United States. The objective was to improve student achievement and graduation rates. The districts put into place measures focused on improving individual teacher performance. The measures included agreed teaching standards, access to professional development and pay matched to performance.
In 2018, the Rand Corporation evaluated how effective the program had been. In short, the program didn’t significantly affect student achievement. It also didn’t significantly improve teachers’ retention rates.
The … initiative was designed to test whether the effectiveness based teaching policies described … would lead to a dramatic improvement in student achievement and graduation… We did not find this to be the case …
It was an ‘expensive experiment’ that demonstrated ‘no gains for students’. Susan Johnson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a recent article has written that the report marked the ‘denouement of a gradual but steady decline in confidence about the use of financial bonuses, evaluations, value-added assessments, and accelerated dismissals to improve schools’.
Colleagues, not cash?
So, armed with this comprehensive evaluation of financial incentives, researchers started to look at what makes for effective schools. Johnson and her colleagues had already studied what made teachers leave teaching. They found that teachers don’t leave because of students. Teachers leave because of school. In a finding that might sound familiar to teachers at all levels, they found that ‘the conditions in which teachers work matter a great deal to them’. Teachers are more likely to stay in schools; the conditions are better.
But drilling down further, Johnson and her colleagues found that it wasn’t the physical conditions that were important. It was the social environment – culture, leadership and collegiality. But they also found that there was a correlation between teachers’ satisfaction with their environment and students’ academic performance.
In another post, I wrote about research happening across the Atlantic that revealed something similar. And this is where Johnson’s research might also tell us something about university teachers. German researchers found that there is a correlation between positive emotional responses in students and their academic performance. But even more importantly, teachers who demonstrated positive emotions in the classroom can transmit them to students.
In short – enthusiastic teachers create engaged students. And engaged students do better academically.
Collaborate and thrive?
Johnson and her colleagues took their research further. They went out to schools to find out more about what makes teachers thrive. In their book, Where Teachers Thrive, Johnson and her colleagues confirmed the importance of positive working conditions on teacher performance.
One of the factors they found that contributed to teacher satisfaction was collegiality and collaboration. Teachers worked closely together to plan what and how to teach. They also worked closely to design what and how to assess their students. The goal is to improve the effectiveness of their teaching.
Teachers used common planning time to meet, choose curriculum, create and refine unit and lesson plans, and compare group assessments in order to gauge the effectiveness of their instruction.
Could collaborative planning work in law school?
This got me thinking about law school and what we do as law teachers. It is easy to point at Johnson’s research and say ‘Well, that might work with 13-year-olds, but it won’t work with 23 -year-olds’.
But stop. Hear me out.
There are a lot of similarities in the objectives of the teaching teams Johnson studied and law school. The traditional Langdellian-styled law school curriculum is broken into subjects. In Australia, those subjects are compulsory for law students seeking admission to the profession. But the skills law students use are applied across their studies, in every subject. I have written in another post about the Council of Australian Law Deans expectations of the capabilities of graduates. The same could be argued about the American Bar Association’s Standards.
Law students also tend to study the same units in the same semester. That is, they might sit in different subjects, but they sit in those subjects together in the same semester. As a group, they meet the same group of lecturers and tutors every week throughout the semester.
Law students also tend to travel as a cohort. The same group that started foundation units in the first year is probably almost identical to the group that enrols in constitutional law two years later. As law teachers, we know who they are as individuals and as a group. We know their general aptitudes, attitudes and attributes.
Possibly, and even more important for law schools, could it make teaching more adaptive and nimble? The legal profession is changing. There is a mountain of commentary on new demands on the profession.
What would it look like?
What if law teachers teaching units to the same cohort at the same time planned together? Could collaborative planning improve law students’ performance? Would it provide opportunities to think creatively about delivery and assessment?
Could it also improve law teachers’overall job satisfaction?
What would collaborative planning look like? Thinking further about it, it would probably depend on the law school. But there is research available about some ground rules for collaborative curriculum planning. In fact, there are even some guiding principles that research in schools shows could be valuable. For example, Jacqueline Thousand, who writes extensively on co-teaching, has identified:
- Who needs to be involved? What expertise needs to be brought into the planning? Who is affected?
- Clarify the goals of the process early on and create a common goal.
- Agree on consistent terminology.
- Be accountable, trustworthy and transparent in your planning.
- Recognise differences between collaborators in terms of experience, expertise and motivations.
- Celebrate collaborative goals as they are achieved.
Could collaborative planning at law school improve law students’ performance? I would love to find out. Wouldn’t you?