Inside-Out Rather Than Outside-In
“The school that becomes a self-renewing enterprise
will shape its own future.” 1 – Roland S. Barth
There no longer is any doubt that the most effective and powerful way to achieve and sustain substantive school improvement is by building the capacity of “inside” school personnel to work together as a professional development community.2 For several decades schools have brought in an array of “outsider” approaches – the hiring of costly educational corporations, consultants, well known speakers, strategic planning experts and people to train teachers in test-prep materials – all hopefully to bring about school reform and higher student achievement. For the most part the imposed “outside-in” approaches may initially kindle hope, but inasmuch as they are imposed, not owned and possibly not facilitated collaboratively and enthusiastically by the “inside” school community, they ultimately wither, and are added to the list of the “predictable failures of school reform.”3 The good news is that innumerable respected educators, researchers and journalists now are taking a hard look at the evidence against conventional top-down outside-in reform and improvement efforts, and are examining the evidence that substantiates the on-going professional development of collegial teacher teams (learning communities) to define, tailor and assess initiatives that significantly accelerate student learning.4 Peter Senge, researcher and author of the fine books, The Fifth Discipline and Schools That Learn, states:
“There is an emerging consensus across the nation that
high quality professional development is essential to successful
education reform. Professional development is the bridge between
where educators are now and where they will need to be to meet
the new challenges of guiding students in achieving higher
standards of learning.”5
Moreover, it is well proven that productive teams in which teachers collaboratively learn, research, design instruction, mentor each other, reflect and assess student learning achieve: 6
- higher-quality solutions to instructional problems,
- increased confidence and collegiality among faculty,
- increased ability to support one another’s strengths and to accommodate weaknesses,
- more systematic assistance to beginning teachers, and the ability to examine an expanded pool of ideas, research on learning, constructive pedagogy and materials.
In addition to the wealth of literature on professional development and school improvement, recent surveys of high performance Tribes Learning Community (TLC®) schools clearly indicate that there are four essential practices that not only maximize the effective implementation of the research-based process of Tribes, but also teacher performance and student learning. The four practices are:
- The principal has participated with his/her whole staff in the Tribes TLC training courses, and is committed as the educational leader of the school to leading facilitation of the system-wide implementation of the community learning process.
- The principal has organized a small core leadership group of teachers who meet regularly with the principal (and if available the school’s certified Tribes TLC district trainer) to plan, support, reflect upon, mentor and assess progress.
- All teachers belong to small on-going professional learning groups to plan active learning curriculum, to create and share helpful materials, to reflect upon using the research-based process and pedagogy, and to assess student learning and needs. Groups also study and share pertinent articles, helpful books and documents that lend support to their collegial professional development.
- Reflective practice is used throughout the school to guide the overall student-centered strategy, to maintain the caring culture, to monitor teacher, student and parent suggestions and needs, and to authentically assess student learning.
When districts or schools recognize that building the capacity of inside personnel, ultimately, is the best bet to achieve school improvement and to accelerate student achievement – indeed, they consider ways to reallocate time and resources for on-going professional learning groups. Some districts add days to the teaching year or distribute the time of in-service days. Others extend or cut minutes of the school day to provide at least an hour a week for teachers and school leaders to work and learn in various types of small groups, and to assess implementation of principles and practices that lead to educational excellence for the school.
Readers of this article and teacher learning groups may learn the full scope of the literature and research supporting the Tribes Learning Community process in the new book, What Is It About Tribes? by Bonnie Benard, Senior Program Associate of West Ed. A summary article entitled, The Research-Based Components of the Developmental Process of Tribes Learning Communities, 7 also is available.*
Most important it is time to consider the nationwide long-term impact that can be made through the “inside” sound professional development of the teaching staff who best know their students, who thrive on learning together, and daily are able to make continuous improvement – well beyond top-down facilitation by “outsider experts” or organizations. The path to significant educational excellence is set forth clearly by respected superintendent, educator and writer Richard DuFour who emphasizes that…
“All we need to do is to work hard to honor and organize
the creative capacities of school-based teacher teams
of authentic “learning communities.” 8
The time is now. And no longer is it a mystery as to how school learning communities can do it.
1. Barth, Roland S. (2001) Learning By Heart. Jossey-Bass, p.xiv.
2. DuFour, Richard, and Robert Eaker. (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service, p. xi.
3. Sarason, Seymour. (1990). The Predictable Failure of School Reform. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
4. Smoker, Michael. Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement. Phi Delta Kappan International. (April 2004).
5. Senge, Peter. (2000) Schools That Learn. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
6. Smoker (2004).
7. Benard, Bonnie. (2005) What Is It About Tribes? The Research-Based Components of the Developmental Process of Tribes TLC. Windsor, CA: CenterSource Systems.
8. DuFour, Richard. DuFour, Rebecca. Eaker, Robert. Karhanek, Gayle. (2004) Whatever It Takes – How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn. Bloomington, IN: National Educational service.
*The 250 page book, What Is It About Tribes?, as well as the summary article, The Research-Based Components of the Developmental Process of Tribes Learning Communities, are available from CenterSource Systems.