High school and university collaborations

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The interests of K–12 and university teacher education have long been intertwined—and that relationship becomes even more connected in an accountability era, when student performance in school is increasingly the basis for judging the quality of teacher education programs. This unfortunate alliance, however, holds the promise of forging new kinds of relationships for learning. A third space for learning can be explored when teacher development is prioritized in ways that transform traditional structures of teaching and learning for both teachers and students.

A Collaborative Partnership

Educators Carol Conklin-Spillane and Christine D. Clayton met to discuss an upcoming grant opportunity in the high school where Conklin-Spillane had been the long-term principal. Clayton was an education professor at a local private university interested in building a model for professional development to promote inquiry learning.

Sleepy Hollow High School (SHHS) in Sleepy Hollow, NY, had been a strong partner of Clayton’s teacher education program. Guided by Conklin-Spillane’s leadership and vision of personalization and cultivating deep understanding, the high school had instituted an innovative block schedule that provided opportunities to support more extended learning and stronger teacher-student relationships. It was an ideal environment for teaching candidates to make sense of the ideas and practices they were learning in the university.

Initially, the envisioned partnership was routine. The school would continue to provide high-quality field and student teaching placements. In return, the university would provide a service to partner schools such as SHHS by involving interested in-service teachers in a grant-funded yearlong professional development program. The grant ended up lasting for nine years, serving 146 teachers from eight schools. Of those nine years that SHHS was involved, seven involved close collaboration before Conklin-Spillane went on to become superintendent of a neighboring district. Over time, the collaboration evolved into something considerably more robust. Not only did it provide high-quality professional development for the high school and collaboration that would inform the teacher education program, but it also created a pathway to sustain teacher commitment to a set of ambitious pedagogical practices.

A Professional Development Approach

The model rests on a simple premise: Teacher inquiry to promote student inquiry promotes learning for both. In this way, learning in tandem has the potential to transform teacher commitments into conceptions and practices that promote inquiry for themselves and their secondary students. Framing student and teacher inquiry—intentionally and together—uniquely repositions the ambitious nature of the professional development by engaging teachers in the kinds of learning models being promoted for students.

Collaborative inquiry promotes a process driven by compelling questions, grounded in working with rich sources of evidence within authentic learning environments, and exhibited through elaborated forms of communication. The process is supported primarily by school-based groups led by facilitators that meet about 10 times throughout the year. Individual teachers across content areas explore practices that promote student inquiry as they implement a self-directed inquiry plan. As they enact their plans, teachers bring their questions, lessons, and student work examples to a community that supports and pushes for deeper classroom inquiry. These inquiries compel teachers to commit to change in their classrooms alongside a systematic examination of their effectiveness in achieving outcomes for students. The work culminates in an exhibition at which teachers share what they learn. In this case, grant funds provided teacher stipends, classroom materials, and reimbursement for substitute teachers for staff development days.

Teachers are also supported by their participation in a broader university network, which gives them opportunities to participate in university-​sponsored professional development experiences: two full-day staff development conferences and a one-evening teaching and learning conference where they can exhibit their work at the end of the year. These experiences offer networked connections across schools, by discipline, by experience level with inquiry, or by stated interests. Teacher leaders participate in an additional layer of support and community to foster their leadership skills. Some extend their learning by presenting their inquiries at professional conferences, pursuing publishing opportunities, or creating professional development opportunities. What remained central to all these efforts was a commitment to prioritizing ongoing educator development and leadership that would change the structures for deep inquiry learning for both teachers and students.

A Mutual Impact

During the nine years that Clayton worked with SHHS, 54 of 80 teachers from at least eight departments participated. Of that group, 24 participated for at least two years or more, touching a wide swath of the faculty and activating a cadre of teacher leaders who developed their expertise and commitment over multiple years. Anthony Baxter, SHHS’ assistant principal, states this partnership “transformed” the faculty and “changed how we do what we do.”

Teachers also repeatedly reported high satisfaction regarding the goals of understanding student inquiry, scaffolding and assessing inquiry, and developing thinking in their content areas as a result of the program. Teachers provided evidence of student learning results, which consistently showed student growth. Over time, some teachers reported increased passing and mastery rates on standardized state and AP exams that they linked to their inquiry efforts. Eight teachers over this period served as inquiry co-facilitators from science, math, Spanish, ESL, special education, and social studies, extending leadership throughout several departments. These teachers became champions for inquiry, recruiting colleagues and making sure that the ideas of inquiry never percolated far from school discussions of other initiatives. Additionally, two teachers went on to lead professional development districtwide or in a community-based organization, while at least three others presented at professional conferences.

There were many ways the relationship also impacted the university’s teacher education program. Five participants served as mentor teachers, four were hired as adjunct instructors of methods courses. Countless others opened their classrooms to informal observations by preservice teachers. Conklin-Spillane and one teacher participated on the university’s Teacher Education Council, helping to shape its programs. The university piloted internships as extended field placements that fulfilled school needs while providing extended student teaching field experiences. Teachers presented in preservice university classes, and some of their materials and teaching adaptations were shared as real-world examples with teaching candidates. The partnership’s impact made deep impressions on both the school and university.

Making the Mission Operational

These successes are due to several principles that grounded the inquiry partnership. The model set up the potential for success, but it was a consistent school-university relationship, predicated on these values, that enabled transformation:

A focus on students. Professional learning sessions centered on students and their needs. Teachers brought evidence of student work and their lessons to display to other teachers. Teachers’ inquiry plans required them to gather data, cultivating curiosity about and empathy for students’ experiences of school. As teachers inquired into what worked for their students, inevitably they created classrooms characterized by dialogue, not monologue; promoted student voice; and shifted toward a focus on students’ assets, rather than deficits, in their approaches. Cultivating empathy helps teachers become more responsive to diverse students’ needs.

Direct support for teachers. While student learning was central, support for teachers was a parallel focus. We assumed that making such progress was hard work that required taking risks, collective effort, and support. The result would be a sense of group identity infused with collective efficacy, which has a powerful influence on student achievement. Teachers often spoke about how they looked forward to inquiry sessions where they collaborated with others beyond their departments, fostering a sense of camaraderie that reinforced expectations and a shared language with students. In recent focus groups, teachers cited the encouragement from the university, encouragement of the school administration, and the structure of the block schedule as key practical supports that enabled the work.

Formal and informal teacher leadership. While Clayton was the university facilitator, some teachers assumed formal leadership roles as co-facilitators of the group; additionally, there were many informal opportunities to share lessons or student work at sessions, present at the year-end exhibition, and share progress with school colleagues. Former participants went on to initiate exciting collaborative programs for students in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, as well as pursue additional certifications in administrative leadership that have led to assuming new roles in the school. One has developed a new course for teachers at a community-based organization, while another has begun to share the inquiry work in science with middle level and elementary school teachers.

Consistent and shared vision and leadership. Consistent leadership is important in any partnership—but in a partnership explicitly for inquiry, it is simply nonnegotiable. Clayton and Conklin-Spillane worked together for seven of the nine years to make the mission operational, bringing expertise as an experienced secondary school principal, teacher educator, and researcher to bear.

Inquiry learning for secondary teachers and students takes a long time to unfold—it is not a simple intervention. It involves cultivating a repertoire of practices, developing a set of conceptions about inquiry and learning, and encouraging dispositions to persist in that work. For many secondary students and their teachers, inquiry learning goes against the grain of what sometimes happens in school and in professional development. As a result, there is sometimes a period of adjusting to a new possibility that needs to take hold. The school-university partnership, guided by leadership from both with a deep commitment to this approach for all students and all teachers, is an absolute necessity for success.

A Third Space for Inquiry

How do you build the kind of trust that fosters inquiry learning for students and teachers and allows a partnership for inquiry to blossom? There are no easy answers, but it starts with the leadership and vision of two committed partners. Such partners know that inquiry learning itself is an important student and teacher learning outcome that is achievable with persistence and patience.

Schools need universities willing to engage in work of this depth with the capacity to support further research, evaluation, and theory about its impacts. Teacher education programs need schools to learn better how to prepare future teachers. In this model, schools are not merely sites for student teaching placements and future job opportunities for graduates, but more importantly, they provide possibilities for experimenting with new field experiences and pedagogical approaches to prepare pre- and in-service teachers, in addition to providing opportunities to reflect on the adequacy of current teacher preparation curricula.

The oft-cited “two-worlds pitfall”—a theory of teacher preparation by educational researchers Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Margret Buchman from the 1980s that positions the university in opposition to the field—can be transformed by rethinking how both come together to support professional learning for improved student success. Teachers who inquire also help their students inquire, and both learn more from the process. A school-university partnership creates a unique third space to enable inquiry learning by both teachers and students.


Christine Clayton, EdD, is an associate professor in the Pace School of Education at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY. Carol Conklin-Spillane is the former principal of SHHS in Sleepy Hollow, NY. She is now a leadership consultant for Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services.