If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve likely run across the term collective efficacy. You can blame an Australian researcher named John Hattie for this. Administrators love John Hattie because he attempts to simplify something that is extraordinarily complicated. Essentially, Hattie looks at a bunch of studies that other people have done in schools, plugs the results of those studies into some sort of gizmo, and out pops an effect size. If the factor has an effect size larger than .40, then that’s better than the growth you would expect to see from students who are doing something more than merely getting older.
There are lists of Hattie’s effect sizes everywhere and school administrators display them like I used to pin up posters of Nikki Taylor and Elle McPherson. If you’re a teacher, you’ve undoubtedly seen these lists or at least heard administrators referencing them. And what is at the top of Mr. Hattie’s magical list of factors?
COLLECTIVE TEACHER EFFICACY.
Visible-Learning.org defines it as the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students. It has an effect size of 1.57, which I’m sure you’ve been told is
While collective teacher efficacy sounds a little new-agey and mystical and seems to imply that if teachers just believed a little harder than students would overcome any obstacles to learning and everyone would go to college and the gross domestic product would triple and we’d all live together in peace and harmony, it’s actually a little more complicated than making teachers feel empowered and getting them to believe in themselves.
Hattie explains that collective teacher efficacy is not just about having all the teachers in a building believing they can make a difference. It’s not just “growth mindset and rah-rah thinking.” Rather, it’s a “combined belief that it’s us (the teachers) that causes learning. It’s not the students.” Hattie says, “When you fundamentally believe you can make a difference (regardless of student demographics or other barriers), and you feed it with the evidence that you are, then that is dramatically powerful.” Source
It’s easy to see how having a building full of teachers who believe in their collective efficacy can impact student learning.
But it’s important to remember that in order to have collective teacher efficacy you must first have individual teacher efficacy. Indeed, the whole concept of collective efficacy is rooted in self-efficacy; each teacher needs to believe that they are the most important factor in each student’s education and that they can overcome student impediments to learning.
So the question must be asked: How do we ensure that each teacher believes in his or her own efficacy?
Too often, we assume that this is a teacher problem. That there is something wrong with a teacher who doesn’t believe in his ability to positively impact his students’ learning. That there is something defective about a teacher who points to poverty and wonders how her actions can overcome all the barriers it places before her students.
Certainly, there are times when a teacher’s mindset prevents self-efficacy.
But I believe there are many more times when micromanaging administrators have destroyed the self-efficacy with which most teachers begin their careers.
Micromanaging administrators, in their quest to improve student outcomes by taking a firmer hand over minute-to-minute operations in schools, effectively undermine their own goals when their actions destroy the one thing we know does more than anything to improve student achievement. The more micromanaged teachers are, the less they will feel responsible for student learning.
Simply, micromanagement destroys teacher efficacy.
Collective teacher efficacy says that teachers believe they can make a difference for students. But what happens to that feeling when teachers feel disempowered? What happens to teacher efficacy when teachers are no longer trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their students but are instead told to merely follow orders?
Let’s say, for instance, that three bright, young people become second grade teachers. They all get hired to work in the same building. They’re idealists, as most are who enter the field. They’ve learned a lot in college about teaching methods and they’ve read some of the latest research on how to teach reading. They are not only full of ideas; they are full of optimism. They’re headed to a high-poverty school where reading scores on state tests have always been low and they’re determined to make a difference. To use Hattie’s language, their collective efficacy is sky-high. They believe that with enough hard work, they can overcome any barriers students might have to learning how to read.
But during the first week of back-to-school meetings, they’re told a few things. First, they learn that they have to use a Board-approved program to teach reading. The district has spent a lot of money on it. It’s research-based (nevermind that the research was paid for by the company that created the program). Other districts (districts that score higher on state tests than theirs!) use the program, so obviously it can’t suck. To give the program a chance to work, these three new teachers are told they will teach it with fidelity. No supplementing or just deciding not to teach something. Teach it the way it’s designed. Don’t deviate.
Our vibrant educators are a bit disheartened at this, especially when they attend a day of training on the program and realize that it doesn’t comport with what they’ve read about the latest research on reading instruction. There’s phonics, but it seems insufficient. There’s lots of comprehension work, but it’s focused on skill-building instead of building students’ content knowledge. Our three heroes were hoping to develop interdisciplinary units on high-interest topics, but it looks like that’s out the window. They were planning to use picture books like those of Patricia Polacco, but now it looks like they’ll be using story excerpts and articles from an anthology that seems cobbled together with the sole purpose of checking off boxes on a list of Common Core Standards.
They remain undeterred. They tell themselves they can still make a difference using this program. After all, they’ll need to intervene and the district is also big on differentiation (the young trio privately wonder how differentiation and slavish devotion to an unproven program reconcile, but they keep such questions to themselves). So they meet and talk about how they’ll help those kids who lack phonemic awareness and what they’ll do for those students whose fluency isn’t up to snuff.
And then, about two weeks into the year, they’re told that there’s a system in place for all of that. The school has been doing it for years. Students are pulled out of their rooms and put in groups based on need. And what will teachers do in those groups? Why, a prescribed intervention from the wonderful program they’re required to use, of course!
But their collective efficacy is not done taking hits. Because there’s also a math program that they’ll be teaching with fidelity.
And the district has guidelines (rules, really) about how much time they are to spend on each subject each day.
Oh, and there’s a pacing guide to which they must adhere. No spending extra time on something if it puts them behind.
And what if the teachers decide their students are just done some afternoon and they need a recess? Nope, not if it’s not at the scheduled time.
What about art projects? Well, they heard that another teacher got her wrist slapped when the curriculum director walked in on her art project last year, so they better not take the risk.
When, exactly, do our three new teachers get to decide anything of consequence? When are they allowed to put all of their learning and idealism into action? When can they put their collective efficacy to the test?
In some districts, the answer is literally NEVER.
It is no wonder why some teachers lack self-efficacy and why a collection of teachers being told what to do and how to do it by people who have never done the job no longer acknowledge that it is their beliefs that make a difference for their students when they aren’t allowed to act on those beliefs.
When administrators manage every part of a teacher’s day, when they send the unmistakable message to teachers that their judgment isn’t to be trusted and that they are to be nothing more than loyal soldiers following marching orders, then we cannot point at teachers and expect them to believe in the power of their own collective efficacy. Such efficacy no longer exists in people who have no agency. If districts want to improve student outcomes, they should listen to what John Hattie has to say. They should get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs so that teachers will once again feel empowered to make a difference for their students.
Faulting teachers who work for micromanaging administrators for lacking a belief in their own efficacy is just another page from the same book that teachers have grown exhausted of having read to them. It’s teacher blaming. Instead of pointing at educators and asking them to believe harder, let’s return the trust and autonomy that was foolishly taken from them so they can be the authors of their classroom’s story. Only then can we expect teachers to believe in their own efficacy.