The School as a Professional Learning Community:
Carmen Ensworth approached her new teaching assignment with some anxiety and nervous trepidation as she entered the building for the first time. She had been assured during her interview that her new school operated as aprofessional learning community that valued teacher collaboration.
Carmen met with her department chairperson in the morning. She provided Carmen with an overview of the entire scope and sequence of the social studies department's curriculum. She also provided her with course descriptions that teachers had developed for each course, and they reviewed the essential outcomes all students were expected to achieve in the courses she was teaching. She explained further that these outcomes had been determined collectively by the teachers after considerable discussion and a lengthy review of the state's Grade Level Content Expectations for social studies, the report on student achievement in social studies by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the curriculum standards recommended by the National Council for the Social Studies and the National Center for History in the Schools.
That afternoon, the teachers split into teaching teams to discuss how the team would handle its responsibilities. Every teacher in the school had been appointed as a member of one or more teaching teams and each team had developed its own set of norms. Carmen was a member of an interdisciplinary team that included an English teacher and a science teacher. Together the three of them would be responsible for 75 students.
The next day, the team analyzed student performance from the previous year, identified areas where students did not meet the desired proficiencies established by the team, developed SMART goals and discussed strategies for improving student performance. The discussion helped Carmen understand what students were to accomplish, how they were to be assessed, and where they had experienced difficulties in the past. She found the discussion to be invaluable. She spent part of the third day of teacher preparation working with her teams and discussing a few ideas she planned to use in her opening comments to students the next day. Finally, she spent the rest of her day examining profiles of her new students.
The following week Carmen worked with her other team--the United States history team. All teachers responsible for teaching the same course were members of a team for that course. The teams developed common course descriptions, articulated the essential outcomes for the course, established the criteria for assessing the quality of student work, and developed common assessment instruments. The history team spent considerable time reviewing and grading examples of essays that students had written the year before. Carmen found this practice particularly helpful in both understanding what the department emphasized and identifying the criteria for evaluating student work. By the end of the morning, the teachers were very consistent in the way they applied the departmental criteria to grading student work.
Carmen considered her common planning time with the members of her interdisciplinary team and several members of her history team to be her most valuable resource. The members of the interdisciplinary team used some of their time to refine integrated curriculum units and to discuss how to apply what they were learning about authentic assessment. Much of this time was spent discussing the students they had in common, identifying individuals who seemed to be having problems, and developing unified strategies for helping those students. Because the history team did not share the same students, its discussions focused more on ideas for teaching particular units and assessing students' understanding in general. Often a teacher would share an idea for delivering a lesson using a tuning protocol and the rest of the team would to provide feedback and opportunities for self reflection.
At the end of the semester, Carmen worked with her teams to analyze the results of student performance on the common comprehensive assessments the teams had developed. First, they compared the students' achievements to the anticipated proficiency levels the teams had set. Then they compared the results to their longitudinal study of past student performance. They identified areas of concern and then brainstormed steps that they might take to improve the level of student achievement. Finally, they wrote a brief summary of their analysis and improvement plan and sent copies to the principal and their department chairpersons.
Carmen felt there was never enough time to do everything that was required, but she appreciated the efforts the school had made to provide teachers with time to plan, reflect, and collaborate. In addition to the professional development time at the start of the year, the four full days set aside for professional development, monthly professional development time, and the common preparation periods allocated for teaching teams, teachers were given two hours every two weeks for planning and conferencing. This was possible because the faculty had agreed to extend the school day by 10 minutes each day in exchange for a two-hour block every other Wednesday when teachers could work together on joint projects.
"If there is anything that the research community agrees on, it is this: The right kind of continuous, structured teacher collaboration improves the quality of teaching and pays big, often immediate, dividends in student learning and professional morale in virtually any setting. Our experience with schools across the nation bears this out unequivocally."
-- Mike Schmoker