A Bias Toward Teams: Are We Teaming Well? Does It Even Matter? Implications for Teams in Public School Districts From a Case Study at Boston Public Schools
CitationWall, Mary C. 2017. A Bias Toward Teams: Are We Teaming Well? Does It Even Matter? Implications for Teams in Public School Districts From a Case Study at Boston Public Schools. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
AbstractTeams are at the heart of change efforts in public school districts all over the country. Within central offices, the nature of systems-level reform generally requires collaboration amongst diverse people with diverse perspectives, sitting across bureaucratic silos and altitudes, who come together to respond and react to school needs and district priorities. Teams are thought of as intrinsic to the work of public education, as a structure that can harness expertise and capacity to address complex, seemingly intractable problems that have dogged districts for decades.
But are teams really necessary to get the work done? If they are, what chances do teams have to flourish or survive amidst the bureaucratic accountability that characterizes most school districts – or to advance the tough work of change that district leaders task them with?
In this capstone, I explore and challenge what I consider to be a fundamental bias toward teams and teamwork in public K-12 school district change efforts. While the intent to seek cross-functional collaboration holds potential to unlock innovative solutions, I argue that by and large public school districts are not yet set up to enable the success of teams – and I question whether or not that matters. Many district change efforts still move forward even when teamwork breaks down, largely because of the bureaucracy districts were seeking to overcome when they set teams up in the first place. In bureaucratic systems, team performance often goes under-recognized as the buck stops at individuals. While this approach is certainly expeditious, it has vast potential to undercut vertical and horizontal collaboration within organizations as well as to undermine the values and priorities that districts like Boston have put forward by exploiting the inequities of business-as-usual. Making forward progress toward district goals in spite of teams thwarts collaborative teaming efforts in the long run. It leaves little incentive for team members to change behavior, it preserves the status quo, and it distances district leadership from the system it has envisioned to better address teaching and learning needs.
I discuss these arguments through my lens of ten months of residency at Boston Public Schools, working on long-term instructional change strategies seeking to organizationally alter ways that central office provides supports to schools. I argue that – absent concerted efforts to cultivate the right task environment for teams to succeed – teams, their individual members, and the change efforts they seek to implement are likely to languish as districts fall back on the same structures that have produced limited outcomes for decades.
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