Saturday, December 5, 2009

Successful Schools Require Teamwork and professional learning communities

One of the great issues in public education today is whether education is going to be delivered by teams under the Professional Learning Community model championed by DuFour and others, or whether it is going to be delivered under the university model in which the teacher is an autonomous teaching professional. Overwhelmingly, the best minds in education are coming to realize that we can get the most out of schools when they function on a teamwork model. The more teamwork the better. A great public school system requires everyone to work together, to get the most out of everyone. When a student comes to school, the student arrives with the accumulated capabilities provided to him or her imparted by parents. The differences in readiness are significant. Some students come to school with a vocabulary of about 600 words. Some students, the same age, come to school with vocabularies of 3000 words. When children arrive in kindergarten, some are fully prepared to learn. They already have the emotional intelligence that allows them to work productively in class. Other children arrive in school completely unready, undisciplined, a handfull if you will.

In each grade, students come to teachers in vastly different states of readiness. In urban core school districts, the range is especially broad. In our school district, here in St. Cloud, the upper quartile of students are significantly ahead, many of them, of neighboring school districts. They are taking harder courses; they are bound for engineering schools, pre-medical programs, top universities and colleges. In the bottom decile, we find children further behind, often. Students who speak no English. Students whose parents never read to them.

When I taught school, I might have two sections, say, of European History, or of algebra, one after another. (I taught social studies and mathematics, in different years). Thirty kids in my first period class might be fabulously talented, as a group, and hungry to learn. The thirty kids in my second period class might be unprepared to read the material for social studies, or fundamentally unprepared to do the basic mathematical operations they needed to perform to succeed in my class. My success as a teacher, in terms of the test scores of my students was radically dependent upon the success of the teachers who came before, the parents, and above all upon the students who were assigned to me.

In the last decade, the most significant evolution in education has been the recognition that public schools can be much more successful when teachers work together in what DuFour has called professional learning communities. DuFour's professional learning communities are not mere study groups, but teams that make proper just in time use of data including testing, and a relentless pursuit of quality. The teams start with a zero tolerance approach to failure and insist that students do their work and do it well. In a great community school system, teachers, administrators, parents, and students form a learning community dedicated to learning and the success of of one is the product of the hard work of everyone.

When I use the phrase "professional learning community," it leaves a bad taste for some, because they think of it as used in other contexts. The DuFour idea is that the adminisistrator of each school is a leader of a team. Not the dictator, but a leader, using modern collaborative leadership techniques that begin with inspiration, collaboration, modeling, listening, and a sense that the school belongs to everyone.

This model is threatening to some who raised up under a different model of public education, in which teachers were isolated in their classroom, free of scrutiny, and basically on their own. In return for the isolation, teachers got autonomy. They want to "take back the classroom" and maintain the old isolating model in which teachers are autonomous. Under this old model, teachers were largely unobserved, largerly free of supervision, kings or queens of their classroom, but mostly alone. Newer teachers, and frankly quite a few of the best older teachers, are much more accustomed to the teamwork idea.

They are energized by the concept of being part of a broad team of education professionals working together. They enjoy having co-teachers in the classroom. They recognize the benefits of team planning, the support that comes from quality educational leadership, the use of just in time testing data and "response to instruction" strategies. If public education is going to succeed, the teamwork model must prevail. The true "Professional Learning Community," described in DuFour's early book Professional Learning Communities at Work is teacher empowering by making the teacher part of an integrated school wide professional learning community with a visionary collaborative educational leader at its head. The professional learning community uses teamwork to assure that students learn.

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