I am in my 24th year working in a medium-sized urban school district, and I have experienced school reform first-hand. Most often it takes the form of top-down programs that attempt to involve everyone in the District in a process that the superintendent (or state-appointed administrator) has decided will transform us from chronically under-performing to excellent in the coming year. Sadly, sweeping programs like these rarely make much difference, and leave teachers feeling as if they are not respected as professionals. This is not to say District level efforts are always worthless -- many of our elementary schools have greatly improved as a result of creative and intensive work by dedicated staff.
If systemic change is going to come, it must come from within. It must draw on the capacity of our own teachers to grapple with the challenges they face.
We hear a lot about "bad teachers" and "good teachers," but much less about the processes and practices that help teachers become better. The single greatest thing we could do to improve schools, without huge expense, would be to support processes that engage teachers in working together to examine their practice and their students' work, to reflect on what is working, and inquire into ways to improve.
What does this look like? Here are some examples of practices that work well.
National Board Take One!:
The National Board certification process has been shown to improve student learning by helping teachers reflect on what really matters in their practice. Take One! is a process that allows teachers to submit a single video portfolio entry for scoring. This entry can be used if the teacher decides to continue and complete the remaining portfolio entries for full National Board certification. Some schools or departments within schools have taken on Take One! as a collaborative professional growth experience, working together to improve their practice. Take One! costs just $395 for each participating teacher.
Collaborative Teacher Research:
Teachers work together to develop questions about their teaching practice which can be probed through a research process. Often teachers implement an innovative practice, and then reflect on how student learning changes as a result. When these lessons are shared at a school site, effective practices can be spread and move the entire community move forward. In Minneapolis, union leaders worked with the District to create an innovative pay structure that rewards teachers for engaging in this process, in a way that connects professional growth to the evaluation process.
Critical Friends Group:
The Critical Friends Group is described by the National School Reform Faculty as "a professional learning community consisting of approximately 8-12 educators who come together voluntarily at least once a month for about two hours. Group members are committed to improving their practice through collaborative learning." The NSRF web site offers an extensive bank of resources, including discussion protocols for looking at student work and exploring equity issues.
Originally developed in Japan, Lesson Study is now being practiced at many schools across the US. I have done some work with Dr. Catherine Lewis, a proponent of this method, whose web site describes the process thusly:
In Lesson Study teachers:
- Think about the long-term goals of education - such as love of learning and respect for others;
- Carefully consider the goals of a particular subject area, unit or lesson (for example, why science is taught, what is important about levers, how to introduce levers);
- Plan classroom "research lessons" that bring to life both specific subject matter goals and long term goals for students; and
- Carefully study how students respond to these lessons - including their learning, engagement, and treatment of each other.
In my experience, Lesson Study offers teachers a valuable structure for delving into how our teaching intersects with student thinking and learning. Schools need to be prepared, however, to make a sustained commitment of time to the process, because the value comes from the careful planning of the lesson, and the rich discussions that follow.
All of these process share a common set of essential elements:
- They build community and collegiality among participants.
- They make our teaching practices public, in that we are sharing what is actually happening, good and bad, in our classrooms.
- They are focused on evidence of student learning.
- They are active inquiries into our teaching and how it can be improved.
To this list I would add another, equally important element.Teachers must be allowed to choose the model of professional development they will pursue. I believe the four models I shared are all excellent and have the potential to yield good results, but if one imposes any of these models on a school, without actively involving teachers in the decision, the results will be disappointing. I think teachers should be empowered to choose from any model that combines the essential elements above, or even invent their own model for collective reflection and improvement.
Each of these processes works when it creates a sense of agency among the participants. Teachers conducting action research must select their question and design their own investigation. Lesson Study requires that teachers discuss what is important for the students to learn, and choose critical concepts as the focus of their investigation into learning. Critical Friends guide their groups to productive conversations focused on real issues members face. Those doing Take One! must create their own portfolio entries. This agency is critical to the enthusiasm and engagement teachers will feel, and this is the true root of accountability, which depends on our ownership of the work. If leaders adopt a top-down approach by mandating a particular model, or micromanaging the processes, by directing teachers to focus on particular research questions or follow particular protocols, teachers are likely to disengage, and actually feel LESS accountable for the processes, since they do not own them.
We all share a sense of urgency about improving our schools, so our students are better able to succeed, and fewer of them drop out. We must hurry deliberately, however, and not rush past the critical steps that engage and activate teachers in doing the hard, and ultimately very personal work of reflecting on and improving our teaching.
What do you think? Does the urgency of our situation demand that we mandate effective practices across the board? Or does true change require us to turn over some of the power to teachers to direct their growth?