Professional Learning Communities
By Bonnie Benard
Excerpt from What Is It About Tribes? The Research-Based Components of the Developmental Process of Tribes Learning Communities, by Bonnie Benard, WestEd, published by CenterSource Systems, Windsor, CA, 2005.
…Creating a classroom community of learners is dependent on
staff having a professional learning community.
One of the major theories underlying Tribes TLC is that of systems theory. This perspective, growing out of the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology, focuses on the inter-related nature of a living system and underlies most current thinking in social psychology [see Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002) for wonderfully readable overviews of this perspective]. Individuals, families, schools, organizations, and communities are all social systems, made up of yet smaller subsystems. Applying this perspective to a school, schools consist not only of student groups or subsystems but of staff, parents, and other community subsystems. What has become clear is that none of these subsystems operate in isolation and that improving one necessitates improving all the others. The Tribes TLC process recognizes this systemic nature of schools, acknowledging that focusing on human development and learning for students necessitates creating parallel processes for teachers and other school staff as well as for families and the larger community. We must remember that, “Although the individual student is the focus of the learning process,… individual behavior and psychological experiences arise out of a cultural context and are based on interpersonal relations. The systems theory alerts us to the systemic nature of classroom life and turns us away from a narrow individualistic focus” (Schmuck & Schmuck, 2001), p. 33).
Thus the Tribes theory of change focuses on transforming all the subsystems within a school community into learning communities. Especially critical to school transformation is the creation of professional learning communities consisting of teachers and other school staff. In fact, as we will see in this section, research has identified that having a professional learning community is sine qua non the most important factor associated with positive health and learning outcomes for students—and with increased teacher satisfaction and job retention.
The literature is also clear on what constitutes a professional learning community (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995; Kruse et al., 1995; Lieberman, 1995; Lieberman & Miller, 1990; Talbert & MacLaughlin, 1994). Summarizing much of what leading school reformers like Linda Darling-Hammond, Milbrey McLaughlin, Ann Lieberman, and Judith Warren Little have advocated, Sergiovanni lists the practices of professional learning communities as doing the following (1996):
- Encourage teachers to reflect on their own practice;
- Acknowledge that teachers develop at different rates, and that at any given time are more ready to learn some things than others;
- Acknowledge that teachers have different talents and interests;
- Give high priority to conversation and dialogue among teachers.
- Provide for collaborative learning among teachers;
- Emphasize caring relationships and felt interdependencies;
- Call upon teachers to respond morally to their work;
- View teachers as supervisors of learning communities (1996, p. 142).
If we were to substitute “students” for “teachers” we would have a list to give teachers of just what students need to be successful learners! Both of these lists are what Tribes TLC is all about. As Lieberman (1995) writes, “People learn best through active involvement and through thinking about and becoming articulate about what they have learned. Processes, practices, and policies built on this view of learning are at the heart of a more expanded view of teacher development that encourages teachers to involve themselves as learners—in much the same way as they wish their students would (p. 592).
Virtually every research-based book written on improving schools cited in this document calls for teacher professional community as essential to school change—including those by Michael Fullan, Thomas Sergiovanni, Philip Schectley, Barbara Rogoloff, Seymour Sarason, to name just a few of the scholars. Literally dozens of studies—and even more practitioner books—have been conducted and written on this topic. According to Michael Huberman (1995), “The literature on professional development has become voluminous” (p. 193). We will examine a few of the seminal long-term research endeavors that especially support the importance of teacher professional community: the work of Milbrey McLaughlin and her colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for the Context of Secondary School Teaching, of Judith Warren Little at the University of California-Berkeley, of Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage at the University of Wisconsin’ Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools and their colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Karen Seashore Louis and Sharon Kruse, Valerie Lee and Julia Smith’s analysis of the National Educational Longitudinal Study, and Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Center for School Improvement and the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. Interestingly, a sidebar comment in the spirit of collaboration, is the fact that most of these researchers have worked and published collegially with each other over the years.
In a seminal article on school change, McLaughlin revisited a famous Rand study of successful school change efforts (1990). Her analysis identified “teacher collegiality,” that is, teachers collaboration and connection with other teachers, as the key to sustaining school improvement. “Reforms or policies that engage the natural networks of teachers can support change efforts in a more sustained fashion…than strategies that adhere solely to a delivery structure outlined by the policy system” (1990, p. 15). In another national study, she and Julie Talbert found that teacher collegiality was the school variable associated with higher levels of student achievement (1993). McLaughlin states: “Teachers within the same school or even within the same department developed different responses to similar students depending on the character of their collegial environment. Which response a teacher chose was a product of his or her conception of task as framed and supported by a particular school or department community” (1990, p. 89).
The data of Talbert and McLaughlin (1993) also found that, “Teachers who participate in strong professional communities within their subject area departments or other teacher networks, have higher levels of professionalism, as measured in this study, than do teachers in less collegial settings” (pp. 142-143). In other words, local communities of teachers are the vehicles for enhanced professionalism in teaching. Enhancing professionalism according to Talbert and McLaughlin (1993) is be determined locally as colleagues come to share standards for educational practice, that is, to develop shared norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes, including strong commitments to students in terms of a mission that includes trusting and caring relationships and to their profession. According to Ann Lieberman (1995), one of the scholars of teacher professional communities, “Teachers must have opportunities to discuss, think about, try out, and hone new practices” (p. 593) through structures such as problem-solving groups or decision-making teams—or teacher Tribes—in the context of a culture of “inquiry.” In essence, what teachers need in the school is exactly what we have discussed that students need in the classroom—a focus on human development and learning in a culture of caring relationships, positive expectation messages, and opportunities for participation (i.e., “inquiry”) within the structure of small learning groups. As Fullan and Hargreaves (1991/1996) claim, “Teacher development and student development are reciprocally related” (p. 82).
Judith Warren Little’s influential research into teacher professional development (1993) also identified that “subject matter collaboratives” or “teacher networks” or “ongoing local study groups” offer a far more effective approach than the traditional training-and- coaching model of professional development to actually effect the many, forever-changing and complex educational reforms. She writes, “Altogether, the profoundly local character of much reform activity would seem to offer substantial opportunity to create and support alternative modes of professional development—those that enable local educators to do the hard work of reinventing schools and teaching” (p. 146). She, furthermore, identifies the following six often quoted descriptors of what constitutes effective professional development, descriptions that none other than a teacher learning group or teacher Tribe could fulfill:
- Professional development offers meaningful intellectual, social, and emotional engagement with ideas, with materials, and with colleagues both in and out of teaching.
- Professional development takes explicit account of the contexts of teaching and the experience of teachers.
- Professional development offers support for informed dissent.
- Professional development places classroom practice in the larger contexts of school practice and the educational careers of children.
- Professional development prepares teachers (as well as students and their parents) to employ the techniques and perspectives of inquiry….It acknowledges that our strength may derive less from teachers’ willingness to consume research knowledge than from their capacity to generate knowledge and to assess the knowledge claimed by others.
- The governance of professional development ensures bureaucratic restraint and a balance between the interests of individuals and the interests of institutions (pp. 138-139).
Looking at the effects of teacher collegiality on student outcomes, Michael Fullan (1999) refers to the study of school restructuring by Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage (1995) and their colleague Karen Seashore Louis and Sharon Kruse (1995) as “providing the most explicit evidence on the relationship between professional community and student performance” (p. 31). Using measures of standardized achievement tests and more ‘authentic’ performance-based measures of learning, these researchers found that some schools did much better (using student achievement in mathematics, science and social sciences as the indicators). They identified the existence of “high professional community” as the reason for students’ better performance. Newmann and Wehlage (1995) claim professional communities work due to the following reasons:
- Teachers pursue a clear purpose for all students’ learning.
- Teachers engage in collaborative activity to achieve the purpose.
- Teachers take collaborative responsibility for student learning.
- Schoolwide teacher professional community affected the level of classroom authentic pedagogy, which in turn affected student performance.
- Schoolwide teacher professional community affected the level of social support for student learning, which in turn affected student performance” (pp. 30, 32).
These assumptions also apply to the underlying Tribes TLC theory of change.
In an influential study supporting teacher collaboration—and one also having import in the small schools movement, Valerie Lee and Julia Smith (1994) studied the effects of restructuring on high-school students using data collected as part of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) in 1988 and 1990. Data on 11,000 students enrolled in 820 high schools nationwide documented that students learn more in schools that are organized “communally” rather than bureaucratically. Specifically, “Increased gains in student engagement and academic performance, as well as in the degree of equity, [were] found in school with communal restructuring practices, compared to schools with traditional [bureaucratic] restructuring practices and schools with no restructuring practices” (p. 4).
The “communal” model of school structure, often referred to now as “the personalized high school” approach, is essentially a developmental model like Tribes TLC in which “contact between people is more sustained and more personal and there is more agreement on organizational mission for which people share responsibility” (Lee & Smith, 1994, p. 2). “In a communally organized school, teachers work collaboratively, often in teams that are formed across subjects. Instead of being governed by top-down directives, teachers have more input into decisions affecting their work. And instead of slotting students into different educational paths, a communal school would group students of diverse talents and interests together for instruction” (Lee & Smith, 1994, p. 16). In essence, a communal school is another way of describing a Tribes school: “In a communal school the educational focus for students and teachers seems clearer to those who experience it, and the increased opportunity for sustained contact in groups may heighten the commitment of both teachers and students to succeed. Schools with this form have more meaning for their members” (Lee & Smith, 1994, p. 2).
A follow-up qualitative case study of three “restructuring” schools conducted by Jacqueline Ancess (2000) further validates the power of teacher inquiry groups. Ancess’ study, which explored the link between teacher learning, teacher instructional behavior, and student outcomes showed that when teachers engaged in an ongoing learning process, they tended to identify and carry out practices that resulted in increased graduation rates, improved college admission rates, and higher academic achievement for their students. She explains that, “In each case the teachers shared student outcomes and their practice with other faculty in school-wide forums designed for public sharing. Over a period of several years, evidence of improved student outcomes eventually persuaded the entire faculty at each school to adopt these organizational and pedagogical innovations on a school-wide basis” (2000, p. 597). She writes that in each of the schools she studied, “A constellation of nine conditions made the above changes possible: (1) incentives for teacher inquiry, (2) opportunity for teacher inquiry, (3) teacher capacity for leadership in innovation and inquiry, (4) respect for teacher authority, (5) flexible school structure, (6) responsive and supportive administration, (7) sufficient time, (8) sufficient resources, and (9) regulatory flexibility” (2000, pp. 597-598).
Anthony Bryk and his colleagues from the University of Chicago Center for School Improvement and the Consortium on Chicago School Research have done several seminal studies supportive of teacher collegiality and communally organized schools (Bryk & Driscoll, 1988; Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Bryk & Schneider, 2002). As we discussed in Chapter 2, his latest study with Barbara Schneider (2002), a longitudinal study of 400 Chicago elementary schools, identified that, “Social trust among teachers, parents, and school leaders improves much of the routine work of schools and is a key resource for reform” (Bryk & Schneider, 2003, p. 1). Social or relational trust consists of respect, personal regard, competence in core responsibilities, and personal integrity. “By linking evidence on the schools’ changing academic productivity with survey results on school trust over a long period of time, we were able to document the powerful influence that such trust plays as a resource for reform” (p.2). In terms of teacher collegiality, this study found the following effects: (1) “Collective decision making with broad teacher buy-in, a crucial ingredient for reform, occurs more readily in schools with strong relational trust”; and (2) “In schools in which relational trust was improving over time, teachers increasingly characterized their colleagues as committed and loyal to the school and more eager to engage in new practices that might help students learn better”; and (3) “Relational trust is also more likely to arise in schools where at least a modicum of choice exists for both staff and students” (p. 4 & 6).
In another Consortium study with teacher collegiality effects and using the same data base as Bryk et al’s, Smith, Lee, and Newman inquired into teacher instructional style, organizational structures, and achievement in Chicago elementary schools (2001). These researchers found the following connection between teacher collegiality and children’s higher achievement on standardized tests: Children scored higher on these tests when—contrary to common thought that “skill-and-drill” is more effective for test prep– their teachers used interactive instruction; and teachers who used interactive instruction were more likely to be found in schools that supported teachers collegiality, specifically their engagement in reflective discussions about their practice. What we basically find in these last two studies is support for the transformative power of the three protective factors that create a Tribes caring culture for teachers as well as students: caring relationships, positive expectations, and opportunities for participation.
Returning to some of the research we cited earlier in this document, we also find evidence that teacher professional community is a critical component not only of the whole school reform models examined by the American Institutes of Research (1999) we discussed earlier such as Comer’s model and the Child Development Project of the Developmental Studies Center but is also found in school effectiveness research and research on high-performing schools. For example, Michael Rutter and his colleagues classic study (1979) of the power of school climate to change holistic student outcomes discussed elsewhere in this document) also sheds light on the importance of shared staff norms, especially norms around teamwork, cooperation, and shared discipline. This three-year longitudinal study in twelve urban high schools found that: (1) Students achieved more highly in schools where staff members shared expectations to plan the course of study cooperatively. In such schools, the group planning provided opportunities for teachers to encourage and support one another. (2) Students achieved more highly and had fewer behavioral problems in schools where the disciplinary rules for the pupils were set by the teachers as a group (teamwork and cooperation), in contrast to leaving individual teachers to work out the rules of discipline for themselves. (3) Students achieved better in schools where staff norms supported being open and direct with one another. In the less successful schools, faculty members expected one another to be autonomous, private, and aloof.
In examining the common elements of five high-performing, high poverty middle schools, Susan Trimble (2002) found that each of them used teams of teachers and administrators to do the work of the school. “My work with the five high performing schools showed that these schools accomplished their work using a variety of types of teams. In addition to interdisciplinary teams, these other types included administrative teams, grade level teams, school improvement teams, content area teams, student support teams, and special focus teams” (2002, p. 5). She explains their success as follows:
Teams provide the structure for discussion and problem solving while working with diverse populations of students with complex situations. They also activate the creative thinking processes and group dynamics that generate multiple solutions to problems… Teams also supply emotional support that can evolve into small groups of communities for learning. In short, teams engage the participants and establish the relationships that Hargreaves and Fullan (1998) deem as “absolutely necessary for successful reform” (p. 5).
Bonnie Benard, MSW, is a Senior Program Associate at the WestEd Regional Educational Laboratory, School and Community Health Research Group. Since 1982 she has provided research support and conceptual frameworks for understanding and addressing prevention and youth development issues. In addition to her writing and consultation, she provides workshops and presentations internationally on the topic of resiliency and youth development. Bonnie’s insights have long served as guiding principles for the caring culture of Tribes.
The full document includes extensive references and is available from CenterSource Systems upon request.