For too long, teacher-to-teacher communication meant exchanging weekend plans in the faculty room. In professional learning community schools, teachers develop interim assessments, common goals, and share best practices. Included: Examples of professional learning communities.
The irony that the universal mission of education — to prepare students for the next level of learning or life — has been pursued mostly by isolated classroom teachers, with little regard for strategies used in the classroom next door, is starting to hit home with educators. Many are finding that once teachers start collaborating with colleagues in their schools and other buildings, a chain reaction leads to teachers working smarter and students learning more.
That is what unfolded at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, Virginia, and James Madison High School, the high school Thoreau students attend, when the schools principals wholeheartedly embraced the ideas of building professional learning communities and using formative assessments to target student weaknesses.
Ive been at this for seven-and-a-half years, and as a principal, this is the most difficult work Ive ever done, said Mark A. Merrell, principal of James Madison High School. If you think about it, [years ago] a teacher went into a classroom and may never have seen another adult all day. In the private sector, there is more focus on teamwork.
What were starting to see nationally is a change of culture of schools — going from a culture of isolation to more collaboration, Merrell continued. Fifteen years ago, the idea of teach what you want to teach was the way most public schools operated. We havent had teachers working with teachers before. The hard work is breaking through the culture of isolation.
MEETING COMMON GOALS
The two schools are part of a cluster in the sprawling Fairfax County, Virginia, school district. Each cluster includes several high school pyramids that include a high school and its feeder schools, usually a middle school and between five and seven elementary schools.
At Thoreau, part of being a professional learning community means the school is organized into core curriculum areas so teachers can share resources, according to principal Mark Greenfelder. Its an operational structure and culture built into the school to ensure student success, he told Education World. Thoreau now is considered a model professional learning community school and Greenfelder lectures and gives presentations at conferences around the U.S. I’m pretty much a skeptic, and this is the most successful model I’ve ever seen.
Staff members also keep themselves informed about current educational practices by reading at least two books a year and participating in discussions. We have a very literate, well-read staff, Greenfelder said.
All subject-area teachers at Thoreau have a common planning period that is used to develop assessments and discuss successful and unsuccessful strategies. Using formative assessments, or mini-tests, developed by teachers helps teachers work together and leads to common language, strategies, and learning approaches, Greenfelder added. I believe formative assessments are a tool for getting teachers together to hold discussions.
Teachers review assessment results every two weeks to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of students and share successful approaches with colleagues. Its a bear on the schedule, but worth doing, Greenfelder noted. This is not based on a lot of the nonsense that takes place at a lot of education meetings. This is research and data-based, and we also look at best practices at schools similar to ours. Its a very strategic approach.
KNOWING WHAT LIES AHEAD
Once a month, seventh and eighth grade teachers also meet to discuss what they can do to improve student performance and what they need to do to help students succeed at higher-grade levels. For example, one of Merrells goals is for every James Madison student to take at least one Advanced Placement class. To prepare middle-school students for that, all Thoreau students are enrolled in honors science and social studies classes and all eighth graders take algebra. We believe we have the support to help them succeed in high-level classes so they can try them in high school, Greenfelder said.
The strategies and vocabulary for professional learning communities are familiar to parents and teachers in both schools. Were fortunate to apply ideas that work in each other’s schools, Merrell told Education World. Weve cut down on the transition time from middle to high school — now kids dont have to learn the vocabulary for high school, such as formative assessments; we use them and use them the same way the middle school does.
While Thoreau was a high-performing school when Greenfelder took over six years ago, now it is one of the top schools in Virginia when it comes to state test scores and making adequate yearly progress (AYP). This has really helped us reduce the achievement gap between minority and other students, Greenfelder told Education World. Now no group of students is below the 90 percentile for proficiency. This is working smarter, not harder.
HELP WHEN NEEDED
James Madison also is organized into curricular teams with common planning time for subject-area teachers. It could be a scheduling nightmare, but this is a priority, Merrell noted. All 11th grade social studies teachers, for example, have a common planning period once a week to discuss curriculum issues. They prepare specific goals based on data and tell Merrell how they plan to meet those goals. Most teachers are not used to making data-driven decisions, he added. We’re getting teachers together so they can learn how to do that.
Another strategy paying big dividends is providing academic assistance during the school day for students who are struggling. Every day each student has 35 minutes to get extra help from a teacher or student tutor, do homework, work on projects, or prepare college applications.
I have control of the kids between 7:15 a.m. and 2:10 p.m., said Merrell. I have to cut up my school day to get kids intervention during the day. There are just so many things pulling at them.
LOOKING OUT FOR ALL KIDS
When Merrell introduced the professional learning community concept to the faculty, he said it was an effort to reculture the school to allow teachers to collaborate, share best practices, and ensure they are very interested in the achievement of all students in the school. Its taking the best practices of teachers in your school and applying them to all the kids in your school, as opposed to having one superstar teacher who 120 kids were lucky enough to have.
While traditionally an 11th grade social studies teacher might be only concerned with his or her 150 11th grade social studies students. Merrell stressed to the faculty that now all teachers are responsible for all 500 11th graders in the school and for sharing best practices so all students benefit. It makes sense.
This hasn’t been easy work, but it’s been very fulfilling, he added.
DATA TO THE RESCUE
Initially, some teachers were reluctant to participate, Merrell said. Some said, I’ve been teaching for so many years, I’ve been effective, and why is this different? he said. My response has been that all of us are much stronger than one of us. If we all take responsibility, there is less chance of kids falling through the cracks. When we are using data to drive decision-making as opposed to intuition and anecdotes, it makes it easier to make real clear decisions. If you dont have data to support something, its hard to make an argument hold a lot of water.
Some teachers fear the professional learning communities approach takes some of the individuality out of teaching, Greenfelder said. I agree with that a little, but it does not take away their personality in the classroom, he said. This ensures all students are getting the same level of instruction.
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