Teachers' Learning Communities: Catalyst for Change or a New Infrastructure for the Status Quo?
by Diane Wood - 2007
In an era of high stakes accountability, public school districts struggle to improve teaching and learning for all students. As a result, effective professional development approaches for teachers are a high priority. Recently, teachers’ learning communities (LCs) have been recommended because successful LCs foster teacher collaboration and make practice public. At a deeper level, however, this type of professional development depends on teachers taking more control over their work, releasing tacit knowledge and expertise, developing critical judgment, and taking fuller responsibility for student learning. Such a construction of teachers’ roles and responsibilities sometimes collides with entrenched norms in school cultures.
This article explores four core themes, which represent endemic challenges to sustaining teachers’ learning communities (LCs): 1) defining and fostering teacher agency, 2) determining purposes for teacher collaboration, 3) tracking the challenges to and impact on district culture, and 4) identifying enabling and constraining institutional and policy conditions. The author uncovers conflicts that frequently emerge when efforts at enhancing the professional autonomy, authority, and responsibility of teachers conflict with hierarchical and bureaucratic district and school cultures.
The study is located in a mid-Atlantic city in the United States, struggling with economic disparities, entrenched poverty in some sectors, a shifting economic base, and rapidly changing demographics largely due to immigration. The school district faces challenges typical of other urban districts—closing the achievement gap between middle class and poor children; developing culturally responsive educational practices, providing adequate resources in uncertain economic times; and meeting intensifying federal and state accountability demands.
Research participants include the district superintendent, district administrators, principals, instructional coaches, and teachers.
This article, based on two and a half years of data collection (October 2001 to April 2003), draws on site-visit interviews and focus groups of key players, observations of LC participants’ meetings and classrooms, e-mail correspondence with several key players, observations of LC coaches’ trainings, and reviews of relevant documents. The author served as an outside researcher to track the district’s implementation of the initiative. Eventually, the field-based data was compared with survey data with responses from 251 LC participants in the district. Survey questions were designed by a research team, which included three other outside researchers studying the same initiative in three districts in other states. In all, the qualitative data required visits to LC coaches’ trainings and five on-site visits to the school district, each visit extending over two to four days.
From the data, the author draws several conclusions with implications for the initiative’s success and sustainability. First, although the initiative sought to establish learning communities to mobilize practitioner expertise and build collective responsibility—all for the sake of student learning—most participants did not claim a connection between their collaborative work and student learning. Second, while the district has made considerable headway institutionalizing structural dimensions of the initiative, efforts to enhance teacher efficacy appeared to be constrained by high-stakes accountability policies requiring compliance. Third, within the groups, more time was devoted to community-building efforts than to critical inquiry aimed at improving practice. Fourth, because the initiative’s practices and principles run counter to entrenched norms of district culture, its sustainability may be in question. Fifth, paradoxically, district leadership, though seeking a promising context for change, may be unwittingly causing conditions that threaten to undermine the initiative. Finally, if an initiative like this is to endure, districts must invest greater authority and autonomy in participants as well as adequate time and support.
By the time the mid-Atlantic school district of Hillsboro became part of the Learning Communities Project, an initiative to create professional learning communities (LCs) seeking to improve student learning, it was already a district on the move. Immediately upon taking the helm, a visionary new superintendent began reassuring her staff and the larger community that the district would definitely be rising over the next few years (personal communication, October, 2001). This was a particularly daring pronouncement, since, shortly before she took her position as superintendent, the district had been designated an empowerment district, a euphemism used by the state Department of Education to put districts with low test scores on notice. In short, if scores dont go up, empowerment districts lose local control to state oversight. The superintendents avowed intention was to avoid that contingency.
Even as she faced the possibility of heavy state sanctions, she responded to the situation by entrusting teachers with the primary and collective responsibility to find ways to improve student learning. She moved to replace traditional professional development approaches, which usually seat expertise outside the teaching field itself, with a learning community structure designed to foreground, critique, build, and enhance practitioner expertise. This article, drawn from data gathered over a two-and-a half-year study, tells the story of what happened in the district as a result of the LC initiative in the hopes that it might prove useful to practitioners, policy-makers, and educational researchers.
The study of Hillsboros innovative approach to professional development raised several crucial dimensions of its relative success and sustainability. First, although the initiative sought to establish learning communities to mobilize practitioner expertise and build collective responsibilityall for the sake of student learningmost participants did not claim a connection between their collaborative work and student learning. Second, while the district has made considerable headway institutionalizing structural dimensions of the initiative, efforts to enhance teacher efficacy appeared to be constrained by high-stakes accountability policies requiring compliance. Third, within the groups, more time was devoted to community-building efforts than to critical inquiry aimed at improving practice. Fourth, because the initiatives practices and principles run counter to entrenched norms of district culture, its sustainability may be in question. Fifth, paradoxically, district leadership, though seeking a promising context for change, may be unwittingly causing conditions that threaten to undermine the initiative. Finally, if an initiative like this is to endure, districts must invest authority and autonomy in participants as well as adequate time and support.
There are four core themes underlying these points, which represent endemic challenges to professional development initiatives seeking to create and sustain teachers professional communities: 1) defining and fostering teacher agency, 2) determining core purposes for teacher collaboration, 3) tracking the impact on district culture, and 4) identifying enabling and constraining institutional and policy conditions (see Table 2).
Located in a historic, inland city in the United States, Hillsboro School District (not the districts real name) struggles with many of the same problems found in the much larger metropolises nearby: disparities between the haves and the have nots, entrenched poverty in some sectors, a shifting and sometimes mercurial economy, and rapidly changing demographics largely due to recent immigration. Both enriched and challenged by diversity, district schools at the time of this writing serve approximately 11,400 students, 43% Hispanic, 32% Caucasian, 22% African-American, and 3% Asian/other. Just like many others in the Northeast, the citys economy has experienced major upheavals since the post-World War II boom. Although once a manufacturing center, the citys workers have come to rely more heavily on tourism and a service economy. Not surprisingly, the school district faces challenges typical of other urban districts around the countryclosing the achievement gap between middle-class and poor children; developing culturally responsive educational approaches for recent immigrants, including those whose first language is not English; providing adequate resources in uncertain economic times; and meeting intensifying federal and state accountability demands.
The story of this districts LC involvement necessarily interlaced with the story of the then-superintendents attempt to inspire a beleaguered district. She recognized that she would need professional leadership at all institutional levels to turn the district around, and she could think of no better way to foster leadership than building strong learning communities in every school (Interview, fall, 2001). Thus, the invitation to apply for LC funding came at a propitious time for Hillsboro for two reasons: first, the state was exerting considerable pressure for higher student achievement, and second, district leadership saw clearly the projects potential to build capacity for change and improvement. As the superintendent put it, I want to build capacity, and building capacity means embedding it in the work of teachers (Interview, spring, 2002).
The LC initiative brought together players from diverse contexts. Lucent Technologies Foundation, which has a small staff unable to directly oversee funded projects, solicited the services of The Philanthropic Institute, a consulting company for philanthropic foundations, to manage the initiative. Those steering the Foundation, convinced that the health of corporate America depends on a well educated populace, have made educational improvement a primary focus for their philanthropic efforts. Together, representatives from the Foundation and TPI constructed a design and sent out requests for proposals to nine districts spread across the United States. Four, after multiple-day site visits to each district, won approval: one each in the Northeast, the South, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. The initiatives professional development design marshaled expertise of the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), which is comprised of veteran educators, many of them formerly and presently affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, from around the country with considerable experience in school reform. The NSRF has built a robust reputation for their track record in building practitioner learning communities, which they frequently refer to as Critical Friends Groups or CFGs, grounded in shared norms of respect and trust, but they are also steadfastly focused on improving teaching practice and student learning. According to the plan, NSRF representatives would:
Prepare increasing numbers of Hillsboro faculty and administrators in order to prepare them to facilitate such communities in their own district.
Provide for an outside coach from the NSRF to advise the district throughout the process.
All four of the districts, as they struggled to improve student achievement, decided to rethink the traditional in-service model for professional development and locate it instead in practitioner learning communities (LCs). Each agreed to send district educators to a national meeting for coaches training, which would prepare them to facilitate LCs back home. They promised to provide time during the school day for these communities to meet and to use project funds for crucial resources, particularly substitute teachers, books, curricular materials, meeting supplies, refreshments, and so forth. Moreover, they pledged to find ways to institutionalize and support these local learning communities after an initial three years of funding. Hillsboro decided to begin the project in five schoolsthree elementary, one middle and the only high school. All five schools had significant populations of students on free and reduced lunches. In fact, this was the majority population in the middle and elementary schools.
Given that Hillsboro educators had been demoralized by a series of failed change efforts and public criticism, it is significant that when the superintendent invited district leaders, teachers and principals to participate, few turned the invitation down. Participants attributed their initial involvement to the superintendents optimism, expertise, and enthusiasm. When asked specifically about her leadership, LC participants described her as savvy, energetic, knowledgeable, and badly-needed (Interviews, fall, 2001). According to their accounts, she swept in like a windstorm, managing to set daunting expectations while also raising confidence. Uncompromising in her demand that staff shoulder responsibility for improving student learning, she also made clear efforts to provide enabling institutional conditions and adequate resources. As she put it, I believe in high demand and high support (Interview, May, 2002). And, she had a coherent vision for change:
I want to give us a common language and a common set of tools. I dont want cookie-cutter schools but common intellectual standards of practice. I want everyone, every school, every administrator, every teacher, and every student rising. I want all the schools there, not just a couple. I want them to be able to keep their uniqueness and creativity, but I want them to share some standards. I want to see more sharing of practice and I know that means teachers growing the confidence to share practice. I want to see more critiquing and improving practice. The second thing I want to see is an emerging cadre of leadership, a cadre of people that you can draw on. . . . I mean by that multiple kinds of leadership focused on kids learning (Interview, May, 2002).
STUDYING THE LC INITIATIVE IN HILLSBORO
This article, based on two and a half years of data collection (October 2001 to April 2003), draws on site-visit interviews and focus groups of key players, observations of LC participants meetings and classrooms, e-mail correspondence with several key players, observations of LC coaches trainings, and reviews of relevant documents. The initial design of the project called for an outside researcher to track each districts implementation of the initiative. Because of previous research I had done on teachers learning communities (Lieberman & Wood, 2002; Wood & Lieberman, 2000), I was approached to be the outside researcher for Hillsboro. Eventually, the field-based data was held in dialog with survey data with responses from 251 LC participants in the district. Survey questions were designed by the research team (the four outside researchers covering the four districts). TPI administered the survey, and then a research center at my university entered the data and recorded frequencies. In all, the qualitative data required visits to two national meetings of LC participants from the four districts, and five trips to Hillsboro, each visit extending over two to four days.
Over that time, the superintendent, district office officials, the teacher association president, principals, LC coaches and teachers agreed to be interviewed (see Table 1 for those interviewed as well as frequency of interviews). For all but the most spontaneous encounters, this study relies on semi-structured, face-to-face interviews, using an audio recorder on occasion, but most often taking notes on a laptop. On three occasionstwo by appointment and one serendipitousthe superintendent shared her perspective on the project as it unfolded. Each of the two district administrators, one in charge of professional development and the other, instructional assessment, sat for interviews three times. I interviewed the teacher association president twice. The outside coach from the NSRF who was assigned to the Hillsboro District e-mailed updates eight times (see Table 1) and agreed to three telephone interviews. Trained coaches, who facilitated LC groups, as well as individual participants in those communities consented to interviews, and each of the five principals from the targeted schools responded to interview questions twice. Finally, three non-participants in one of the target elementary schools shared their impressions of LCs in their elementary school.
I, once with the help of an assistant, gathered observational data on 15 LC meetings, which lasted from one to two hours, in the five targeted schools (see Table 1). These observations included five LC meetings in the high school, two in the middle school, and six in the elementary schools. Instructional Facilitators (IFs), who are school-based, former teachers charged with improving the quality of teaching in their buildings, formed their own LCs. Two of these LCs provided more observational data. Three teachersall trained coachesin two of the targeted elementary schools opened their classrooms to observations. Two training institutes conducted by the NSRF provided crucial insights into the preparation of coaches and the processes and purposes of LCs. A survey was administered to all participants in the four districts involved in the LC initiative, including those in the five Hillsboro schools during the fall semester of the initiatives third year. Two hundred and eighteen participants and 33 coaches responded. Questions focused on attitudes, experiences, impact, and sustainability regarding LC participation. This survey data provided a cross check for the data gathered on-site, confirming emerging insights and occasionally providing new avenues for interview and focus group questions.
TABLE 1: DATA COLLECTION
As the data accumulated, patterns emerged and were recorded in research notes. I had the luxury of communicating with other researchers working in the other three districts also involved in the LC initiative. We met or talked on the telephone periodically to compare notes during the entire process. Once the data had been collected, the constant-comparative method, which requires continuously revisiting and comparing data sets, elicited significant thematic categories regarding the work of LCs. I settled on the following categories around which to cluster the data (see Table 2): how the implementation of the LC initiative has constructed teacher agency, how the purpose(s) of teacher collaboration is defined by various players involved in LCs, the institutional impact of LCs, and enabling and constraining dimensions of the policy and institutional contexts for the LC initiative. Throughout, feminist (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Gutmann, 1999; Grumet, 1988, Harding, 1991; Hofmann, 1981; Martin, 1994; Miller, 1986), school change (Fullan, 2002; Goodlad, 1984, Hargreaves, 1994; Sarason, 1996; 1991; Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2000), and critical (Apple , 1995; Freire, Clarke, & Aronowitz, 2000; Giroux, 1997; 1988) theories aided the interpretations discussed in greater detail below. In the process of making sense of the data, I checked in periodicallyby e-mail, phone, or face-to-face conversationswith the superintendent, district administrators, the outside coach, and the principals of the five targeted schools. The superintendent, district administrators, the outside coach, two LC coaches, and building principals of the five targeted schools read drafts of the manuscript. Moreover, the manuscript was made available to all participants in this research study.
TABLE 2: DATA ANALYSIS
SCHOOL CHANGE: SEESAWING BETWEEN BREAKTHROUGHS AND BACKWASH
Public schools represent a bewildering pastiche of educational aims, expectations, goals, and practices, which fall along a continuum from progressive to traditional. It is not unusual for schools to retain vestiges of former change initiatives, however distorted or truncated, though original purposes seem to have been lost (Goodlad, 1984; Sarason, 1991). Additionally, it is not particularly unusual for schools to adopt initiatives in direct ideological conflict with one another. A behaviorist approach to school discipline, for instance, might co-exist with a constructivist approach to teaching mathematicsall without raising alarms about contradictions. This has been apparent to scholars for decades, but even the popular press has begun taking notice. A.O. Scott in an article (February 9, 2003) in the New York Times Magazine describes the problem:
Our schools are political battlefields to an extent that those in other countries are not because they operate under such diverse and contradictory demandsmost deeply, the desire to nurture each childs talent and potential with the imperative to reproduce a competitive, and often unfair, social order. We expect the schools to resolve social problems, the existence of which we otherwise barely acknowledge. (p. 15)
As schools attempt to balance the good of individual children and the collective good of the society, public controversies rage about what we mean by both. In that light, Scott raises several questions:
Debates over the structure and content of schooling present a series of choices: should children learn important information, useful skills or ennobling values? Should they be given the tools of liberation or the habits of obedience of authority? Should schools foster individual growth or responsible membership in society? But these are not choices at all. We wantwe expectall of these things. . . . (p. 15)
Particularly important to remember regarding the LC initiativeor any other school change initiative, for that matteris that implicit in these continuing controversies are largely hidden and rarely-discussed assumptions about the roles and responsibilities of teachers. Should teachers primarily be working toward acculturating children and passing on their cultural heritage, however that is determined? Is their job just to ensure that students learn the basics, and what are the basics, anyway? Or should teachers be challenging their students to think critically, to probe beneath the taken-for-granted, and to imagine a better world? Quite different sorts of professional dispositions, knowledge, relationships, and skills are salient and valuable for teachers depending on how those questions are answered; and, of course, the answers to these questions tend to determine how professional development is approached.
Some educators (Dewey, 1916 & 1929; Giroux, 1988; Greene, 1978; Grumet, 1988; Meier, 1995) have long argued that the teaching profession should be, in Meiers terms, reinvented so that teachers actively, collaboratively, and systematically seek answers to their own dilemmas of practice and construct professional knowledge rooted, not only in educational theory, but also in lived classroom experiences. To re-conceptualize teachers work in these ways requires a professional development agenda that doesnt simply equip teachers with techniques, but widens their professional responsibility and hones their professional judgment. It is an agenda, much like that of other self-regulating professions, to foster commitment, autonomy, collegiality, and efficacy. Such an approach to the profession, however, runs counter to well over a hundred years of public school practices, where teachers are much more likely to be rewarded for compliance and conformity than for critical dialog, inquiry, and innovation (Grant & Murray, 2002; Grumet, 1988; Gutmann, 1999; Hofmann, 1981; Lortie, 1975). It is a particularly difficult agenda to forge given the socialization toward compliance most teachers experience in their workplaces (Cohen & Kottkamp, 1993; Lortie, 1975; Sarason, 1991) and the current press for accountability. Perhaps even more important, it is a conflict-ridden agenda, especially given the hierarchical power relations in most schools and districts.
Over a decade ago, Sarason (1991) wrote that would-be reformers ignore power at their peril. Since Wallers (1932) classic study, one sociology of teaching after the next has portrayed, sometimes implicitly rather than deliberately, the relative power and powerlessness of teachers. On the one hand, teachers wield considerable power in their classrooms to make learning experiences either positive or negative for their students, a reality that accounts, finally, for their being the pivotal players in school reform. On the other hand, teachers, in general, continue to have little control or voice in public educational policy, state and district mandates, and even school rules and procedures.
One explanation for this is that mass public education came of age under the ideology of technical rationality (Cremin, 1964; ?Schon, 1983;Tyack, 1974), which seats expertise in university researchers, who entrust it to supervisors and administrators so that they can pass it on to teachers. This, of course, ultimately consigns teachers to the role of technicians, charged with implementing others ideas (Schon, 1983), and narrowly defines what counts as knowledge (Harding, 1991). This history is unsurprising given the gendered nature of the profession (Martin, 1994). Teaching is work that demands relational labor, but renders it devalued and invisible in most accountability measures. To this day, some reformers seek technical solutions to problems demanding normative analyses (Grumet, 1988; Meier, 1995; Oakes, Quartz, Ryan, & Lipton, 2000 ; Sockett, 1993). For instance, redoubling efforts at direct instruction for a student whose learning problem is rooted in daily but hidden bullying from classmates will be ultimately futile. Such a student frequently needs a caring adult to intervene (Wessler, 2003).
Lying at the very heart of the Hillsboro LC initiative, however, is a complete re-conceptualization of teacher work, a re-conceptualization, which Gutmann (1999) refers to as democratic professionalism. By that, she means teachers need to operate with the professional autonomy and authority to imbue their students not only with knowledge about the culture, but with the intellectual tools to critique itboth necessary for democratic citizenship. Nevertheless, Gutmann goes on to argue, professional autonomy and authority must be tempered by ongoing dialog. In this regard, LCs offer promise. Instead of sustaining teacher isolation, LC participation throws classroom doors open and makes teaching public. Instead of encouraging teachers to depend solely on outside expertise to improve their practices, the LC approach seeks to imbue in teachers a sense of efficacy and to seat professional expertise, responsibility, and judgment in communities of reflection, critique, and inquiry (Harding, 1991). Rather than approach professional development as an opportunity to master technical skills, LC participation supports teachers as professional colleagues and equips them with systematic strategies to collectively build their own knowledge. At the core, if teachers accept the primary responsibility for growing in expertise and professional judgment so they can respond effectively to student needs, this can challenge fundamental issues of power, authority, and control (Apple, 1995; Freire et al., 2000; Giroux, 1997; 1988).
Hillsboro had a great deal going for it as it undertook this transformation. The districts openness to change, generous corporate sponsorship, the NSRFs considerable practitioner wisdom, and the districts strong and visionary administrative leadership all became enabling allies for LC success. Ominous for the project, however, was its potential to expose unresolved, often sublimated, and warring ideologies. While the face of the LC initiative reform positioned teachers at the center of reform efforts, larger cultural expectations for Hillsboro schools frequently did not. Moreover, Hillsboros openness to change had introduced a dizzying number of expectations for the staff, some of which seemed to obstruct an agenda for teacher empowerment and leadership. While the NSRF brought powerful strategies for building professional efficacy and colleagueship, it also had to adapt these strategies to cultural realities of public schooling, leading to at times a short distance between adaptation and co-option. While district leadership had strongly supported the LCs, some district leaders practices inadvertently awakened a backwash of resistance, misinterpretation, and regression.
This is not to suggest that a single, totalizing ideology is preferable. Ideological tensions can be healthy and productive. It is just that when these tensions lie undergroundtacit and unrecognizedthey cannot be deliberated, negotiated, and resolved. On the one hand, district administrators and building principals said they wanted teachers to actively participate in the LC initiative, eventually take ownership for it, and then shoulder collective responsibility for all students learning. On the other hand, some of these same administrators occasionally made top-down decisions that undermined teachers faith that the LC initiative was really meant to live up to the rhetoric. Teachers, too, were conflicted. Some teachers eagerly volunteered for NSRF training, participated in the groups, and relished in the new-found sense of autonomy and responsibility. Some others, however, grew uneasy with the idea teachers could come up with answers to students learning problems. They preferred turning to experts. Ultimately, these tensions regarding the nature of a teachers role, sphere of responsibility, and relative autonomy threatened to subvert the LC initiative.
CREATING LEARNING COMMUNITIES AS AN INFRASTRUCTURE FOR CHANGE
The Learning Communities Project evolved out of the foundational idea that teachers working in professional learning communities who share expertise are more likely to improve student learning than teachers working alone. Built into this notion is the idea that practitioner expertise and collaboration matter and that school cultures need to be re-imagined and reconfigured so that both can flourish. With the help of a philanthropic consulting firm, the funding corporate foundation assembled a sophisticated team to undertake this work. In recruiting help from the NSRF, they brought a cadre of consultants to the project in the spirit of the best teachers of teachers are other teachers (Lieberman & Wood, 2002). They enlisted the advice and participation of local administrators and teachers, and they included in LC training steadily increasing numbers of building and district administrators as well as teachers. Finally, they provided outside university researchers, of which I was one, to document and provide feedback as the project unfolded. This design drew on outside and local perspectives, practitioner and theoretical knowledge, ongoing data collection as grounds for continual reflection and assessment, and both top-down and bottom-up impetus for change.
The project began in five targeted schoolsthree elementary schools, one middle school, and the district high school. At the time they joined the project, all five schools were struggling with low student test scores and their students counted among the poorest in the district. With their superintendents enthusiastic support, the principals and several teachers from each of the schools joined three administrators from the districts Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), one of whom is the teacher association president and an avid supporter of LCs, in attending the NSRFs training session held during the summer of 2000. In all, Hillsboro sent 25 staff to be trained as internal coaches to facilitate local LCs.
During the training, NSRF introduced and then provided hands-on experiences with protocols designed to structure professional conversations with a clear focus on actual work of students and teachers. For example, during one training session, a group of eight teachers sat in a circle. The facilitator (a NSRF member) led the group through a norm-setting activity the day before by asking members of the group to individually write a list of ways colleagues could interact with one another in order to support everyones learning. Each member of the group created his or her own list and then later worked with the larger group to negotiate a common list of norms or guidelines for their collective work. Among these were:
Be respectful of time and voice
Be fully present
Remember there is no hierarchy of expertise
Take our work together seriously
The next day, the facilitator reminded the group of the norms they had set the day before and then introduced a protocol designed to help teachers collaborate with one another in order to assess students work and went over the directions. The facilitator explained that members of the group would be trying to see student work without preconceived judgments, looking for dimensions of it that might otherwise escape their attention. She then explained that there would be a number of phases in the protocolall with time limits. After determining which teacher would present a sample of student work (the participants had been asked to bring these samples and copies for other participants to the training), the facilitator took the group through the protocol, which included taking time to read silently through the work and jot down notes, to contribute non-judgmental responses to it, to pose questions about it, and to consider what the student was trying to accomplish. Through all this, the presenting teacher remained silent but furiously took notes. The teacher then explained the assignment that produced the work and how she had assessed it, but explained to the group that she was now seeing the work in a new light. She said she was particularly surprised that a member of the group thought that the author, a child in elementary school, was working on having an authoritative voice. This gave her pause, she said, something for her to think about when next she coached him in writing. She answered a couple of the questions posed by the group members. This was followed by an entire group discussion about what they had learned from the session that might inform their practice and by an informal evaluation about how well the process had worked.
Although different protocols serve different purposes, in general, they orchestrate specific movements within conversations, providing structured time for presentations, clarifying questions, probing questions, responses, recommendations, and so forth. Rules for who speaks and who listens, as well as strict time limits, apply for each phase. The purpose in all of this is to make professional conversations focused, equitable, and productive despite severe time constraints characterizing practitioners busy lives. Ultimately, protocols are meant to instill in educators reflective and action-oriented collaboration, as well a stance of inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001).
Too numerous to list here, protocols address a wide variety of collaborative possibilities. Equipped with these strategies, the 25 newly-trained Hillsboro LC coaches organized and led learning communities in the district. At least 50 percent of the faculty in each of the five targeted schools (in some schools a greater percentage) participated. The principal of the high school, also a newly-trained coach, led an LC for administrators, and OTL administrators established LCs for Instructional Facilitators (IFs).
Because the LC initiative funds enabled the schools to hire substitutes and because the districts scheduled them during the school day, LCs met during prime time that first year. Moreover, the outside coach, a NSRF member who lives and works nearby provided ongoing support and guidance. LC coaches described her work with them as invaluable (Focus group, fall, 2000). She helped them troubleshoot group dynamics, provided resources on emerging topics, and helped LC coaches deepen their facilitation skills. Meanwhile, the three OTL administrators provided ongoing support from the district office by organizing coaches into LC groups, providing materials, and troubleshooting.
The following summer, 23 more Hillsboro teachers and administrators received training as coaches in another meeting sponsored by the LC initiative and facilitated by the NSRF. Some of those trained in the first year returned, serving as apprentices to the NSRF in order to deepen their understanding and skills working with protocols and to train as leaders in the initiative. Participation in the LCs grew markedly in the five Hillsboro schools during that second year, growing to 100 percent participation in two of them.
The third summer, the district held its own institute for LC training. According to the OTL office, the LCs had earned by this time a widespread and positive reputation, and volunteers for the training had to be turned away. Teachers and administrators from seven more of the districts elementary schools participated. The district contracted with NSRF to do the training, and once again, formerly trained internal coaches served as apprentices. During the subsequent school year, LCs met in all but three of Hillsboros elementary schools, and there was 100 percent participation among teachers in the five original schools. During the fourth summer, the remaining three elementary schools and two middle schools, as well as more OTL administrators, received on-site training.
Thus, the LCs eventually comprised a district infrastructure for professional collaboration and school renewal, and the superintendent asserted that this is exactly what she intended from the beginning:
Something I feel strongly about in this districtyoull hear me say it over and over againis capacity building. We need to sustain this work over time. We need to establish an intellectual community and an inquiry based mindset. . . . What the Lucent initiative does for us is that it moves deeply into the teacher ranks. It builds their capacity to be inquiry based. (Interview, May, 2002)
MOVING FROM INITIATING TO INSTITUTIONALIZING
Hillsboro worked hard to institutionalize the LC initiative. For instance, the OTL newsletter for the district publicized LC activities and upcoming trainings. As has been mentioned, the former teacher association president participated actively in the initiative and eventually became an outside coach for a district in a neighboring state, a district that has joined a second-round of the initiative. Even during the first year, NSRF protocols began appearing in meetings other than LCs throughout the district, such as in school faculty meetings, and the protocols seemed to have influenced not only the processes, but also the substance of the meetings. One principal said, When you start thinking about using protocols for meetings, it changes what you think should be on the agenda. Were much more focused on discussions about teaching and learning now and much less into just announcing information (Interview, fall, 2001).
The protocols became increasingly pervasive. For example, the OTL office, with its three trained coaches, began regularly using protocols for meetings. Protocols slipped into classrooms, particularly in the three elementary schools, but also in the middle school. According to participating teachers, students and teachers were using them for setting norms, text-based discussions, and building positive relationships with one another. The reputation of protocols spread so widely that one principal said she was,
. . . getting teachers coming up to me and asking, Whats this LC thing? What are these protocols? And then they want to know why they cant participate. If Id told them they had to participate last year, they wouldve fought me. It kind of amuses me. But its all because the teachers participating like it so much and it just spreads word-of-mouth. (Interview, spring, 2001)
The five principals of the original schools recognized that the widespread use of protocols could be harnessed to facilitate change efforts on several fronts. They began to find ways to piggyback various other change initiatives on the LC project. For instance, the district high school, in the midst of designing standards-based curricula and restructuring the school into small learning communities, mobilized LC participation to help with both. The principal explained:
We want people comfortable working in teams. We want the school organized into teams. Were trying to embed the idea of working together right into the school structure and then build it into the schedule. The LCs really work well for building that sort of community and then for looking at student work. Weve been able to take a standards-based protocol from another grant and use it in our LCs. . . . Thats one of the reasons I like this professional development model. Its flexible. . . . (Interview, fall, 2001)
The protocol was one developed by another organization to help teachers look at assignments and assessments through the lens of standards-based education. Yet another sign of institutionalization was the fact that Hillsboro hosted its own coaches training. Although the NSRF facilitated the first three trainings, Hillsboro now has a staff sufficiently well-versed in protocols and facilitation that they have hosted two summer institutes and may extend their work to other districts in the region.
From the perspective of participants, these efforts at institutionalization have had wide-ranging positive effects. In interviews, both principals and teachers in all the elementary schools and in the middle school claimed that teachers, due to LC text-based discussions, do more professional reading. According to one principal, We have become a school of readers and the reading is changing our practices (Interview, spring, 2002). Moreover, participants (218) and coaches (33) surveyed were asked how often they engaged in the following activities more than twice a month before LCs were established and then how often they engaged in them afterward:
More collegial conversations (84.1% before; 92.8% after).
More feedback on professional performance from colleagues and more useful suggestions to improve practices (36.6% before; 54.1% after).
More discussions focused on student work samples (44.3% before; 61% after) and assignments, and lesson plans (56.6% before; 69.9% after).
More discussions about dilemmas of practice (54.4% before; 72.2% after).
When asked on a 5-point Likert scale to rate whether the following existed to a greater degree before LCs or then after, survey respondents gave more ratings at the high end (4 or 5) after LCs:
Increased trust among professional colleagues (42.4% before; 51.9% after).
Better understanding of how to meet student needs (59.3% before; 73.1% after).
A district climate more conducive to risk-taking and innovation (59.4% before; 70.7% after).
A greater sense of professional efficacy to improve student learning (44% before; 50% after).
In all of these categories, those surveyed rated LCs more effective than other district professional development, and they believed LCs would continue making a difference in the future. The external coach put it succinctly, Collaborative practice is definitely becoming part of school culture in the district, and people are seeing the power in that (Interview, fall, 2003).
According to principals, collaboration builds leadership. They argued that when teachers work together successfully, particularly when they have the opportunity to name their own professional problems and address them, they develop a sense of efficacy. The LCs create teacher leaders, reported one principal who went on to explain, One of the LC participants was the kind of guy who went into his classroom and did his thingvery dedicated. But now hes a leadera quiet leader, but a leader (Interview, spring, 2003). The external coach concurred, This work produces a whole new layer of leadership (Interview, spring, 2003). Seeing these benefits, a district administrator remarked, Our goal ultimately is to root all professional development in LCs (Interview, fall, 2003).
Hillsboro has indeed institutionalized the LCs in many ways, and this is obviously good news for the projects sustainability. It may or may not be, however, good news for the quality of the innovation itself if it is, indeed, about having teachers being increasingly and collectively responsible for all students learning, working together to meet those responsibilities, and being invested with the authority to take action on students behalf. Despite overwhelmingly favorable assessments of LC work on the part of most teachers and administrators surveyed and interviewed, there were also ominous undertones, particularly during the second year. For one thing, when asked about actual impacts on classroom practice and student learning, most responded that it was too early for that. Some teachers and administrators admitted that LC participation seemed to be making only superficial changes, existing more at the level of perception than practice. They expressed worry that initial enthusiasm might give way to disappointmenteven cynicism. Ultimately, the LC initiative walked a tightrope between redefining the work of teaching or using a new structure to do business as usual. At stake, of course, was whether the LCs would truly fulfill their culture-changing potential and actually foster in teachers sufficient responsibility, efficacy, and authority to improve student learning.
PARADOXES, CHALLENGES, AND POSSIBILITIES
Mitchell Duneier (1999), the well-known sociologist, cautions qualitative researchers about omitting the economic, cultural, and political factors that shape the lives of the people they study:
Through a careful involvement in peoples lives, we can get a fix on how their world works and how they see it. But the details can be misleading if they distract us from the forces that are less visible to the people we observe but which influence and sustain the behaviors. (p. 10)
Teachers, like all other actors on the human stage, make sense of their experiences and responsibilities in a particular cultural and historical context, characterized by unequal power relations (Grumet, 1988; Hargreaves, 1994; Hofmann, 1981; Lortie, 1975). The LC participants were no different.
While the LCs intended to break through teacher isolation and make teachers work more visible and public, some teachers recognized that being visible and public can subject them to caprices of power (Grumet, 1988; Hargreaves, 1991; Sarason, 1991). Because schools always operate as part of larger systems (Senge et al., 2000), changing them is always complicated. For instance, working in public becomes risky for public educators in the contemporary accountability climate, which ratchets up the anxiety of both administrators and teachers. Thus, initiatives like this one can be regarded with suspicion, particularly by teachers who have seen a series of reforms come and go, and who believe the only modicum of control and efficacy they have comes with shutting the classroom door (Goodlad, 1984; Grumet, 1988; Fullan, 2002; Hargreaves, 1991; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Sarason, 1996). Others find the notion of publicness intimidating, having worked for many years beyond the scrutiny of other adults and having kept their doubts, fears, and mistakes to themselves (Cohn & Kottkamp, 1993; Fullan, 2002; Lortie, 1975). Still others enjoy having an audience of children but feel uncomfortable with adults. Of course, there are plenty of teachers who eagerly welcome the prospect of collegiality in order to share what they know and obtain help with professional dilemmas. In Hillsboro, the LCs have elicited all of the above.
Moreover, because the LC project directly challenges old ideas about knowledge and control, the work is particularly difficult. When push comes to shove, the peculiar history of the teaching profession coupled with contemporary notions of accountability make efforts to empower teachers and to release and build on their knowledge particularly vulnerable.
A District Open to and Ready for Change
Along with the LC initiative, the School District of Hillsboro was undertaking other change efforts. The goals of various initiatives focused on standards-based curriculum and assessment, multicultural education, subject matter knowledge, parent involvement, school climate, student literacy, and English language learners. Though not exhaustive, this list offers a glimpse into how much was going on in the district.
Administrators made good faith efforts to minimize the stress and upheaval by taking pains to convey a cohesive and motivating vision for improving student learning and trying to link reform initiatives. And in many ways, signs abounded that the strategy was working. In several schools, for example, faculty used LC meeting time to analyze the quality of student work vis a vis standards, using a protocol introduced by a consultant from another initiative. In an elementary school, attempts to spark more parent involvement included an LC for parents. In that same school, LC energies focused on another school-wide goal, improving childrens literacy. In yet another school, LC meetings provided opportunities for faculty to inquire into problems concerning students behavior and motivation.
While the districts openness to change ushered LC into the schools in the first place, it ironically also created impediments. In interview after interview, principals, internal coaches, the external coach, OTL administrators, and other participants reported feeling overwhelmed by the press for change on so many fronts, particularly because of intense state scrutiny. Standardized test scores had become a constant focus for measuring the districts improvement, and in many teachers minds, the high stakes impetus for most change initiatives. The tests, according to one teacher, an LC participant, make us feel like we have to run faster and faster, and theres so much to shore up in the kids learning and just not enough time . . . (Interview, spring, 2002).
Under these conditions, when there are so many other agendas to which to attend, some coaches despaired at learning how to use all the protocols. One principal put it this way, Its hard to go deeper in this [LC] work, to really get how to use these protocols to improve kids learning. It becomes a matter of just trying to master the protocolsto remember whats there. One internal coach concurred, Look, all teachers love resources, and Im one of them. But look at this thing [gesturing to the notebook]! It sits on my shelf accusing me (Interview, fall, 2002). There was wide consensus among teachers and principals interviewed that a lack of time and a blurring of focus made it difficult to sufficiently develop a command of the protocols.
Others suggested that the sheer volume of change efforts had another subtle and disempowering effect on teachers. For instance, a teacher from the high school remarked, It gets so frustrating always being on the receiving end and not on the decision-making end of all these great ideas to change things, and it seems like theres a new idea every month (Interview, April, 2003). Another high school teacher explained further, These things have come and gone and its sort of dependent on the district or the administrators what the latest priority will be and whether or not it will last. Most dont! (Interview, fall, 2002). An internal coach from an elementary school declared,
When one change after another keeps hitting the teachers, instead of feeling like we can really do something about improving kids learning, the teachers just start looking even more over their shoulders to find out what theyre supposed to do. Its sort of a whats-coming-next mentality because so much is happening. And you just end up looking to the higher ups to tell you what you need to be doing. And here were supposed to be figuring out how to solve some of these problems in the teacher ranksin our LCs. But actually all this change can just make people feel more dependent. (Interview, spring, 2003)
The issue of whether or not the LCs should be mandated is also understandably controversial. Because the district took the stand that LCs offered a particularly promising form of professional development and every teacher ought to be engaged in continuous learning, leaders decided to mandate participation. They tried to balance this top-down directive by assuring teachers they would retain autonomy over their LC agendas. In a spirit of fair-mindedness, district administrators conceded that mandatory participation raised the accountability level not only for teachers but also for the district. As one OTL administrator said, Once 100 percent participation is established, we have a special obligation to provide necessary resources for teachers to continue their groups and make them effective.
Not surprisingly, however, mandating 100 percent participation inevitably raised conflict (Fullan, 2002). In some Hillsboro LCs, resistant faculty were coerced to join enthusiastic participants. As Achinstein (2002) explains, political tensions exist not only between collaborative groups and those outside, but also within the groups themselves. And clashes within the LCs did develop. As schools moved from voluntary to 100 percent participation, some had to reconfigure groups and reschedule meetings. Some LCs became, according to participants, unwieldy in size and, because everyone was involved, had to meet outside of school time. A middle-school participant said her group had gone from a membership of 8 to 19, making it much more difficult to have serious conversations about student work or our assignments or anything else. Her colleague explained further:
We have about twenty people in our groups. A lot of time people just start complaining and we get stuck. And once they get started, its hard to get them off. Our present group is very resistant. And now we dont have a choice about being in an LC and you have to stay until 4:15 and people dont want to be here The group last year was fantastic. We brought dilemmas. Our learning support building model came out of our LC work last year. But this year, were just not there yet. (Focus group, May, 2002)
An internal coach in the middle school echoed the frustration, After all that community-building and trust-building last year, I feel like were back at square one (Interview, spring, 2002).
Both teachers and administrators frequently praised the flexibility of the LCs, particularly their ability to respond to teachers professional interests and needs. Paradoxically, this flexibility can also be problematic. Understandably, district administrators wanted to capitalize on it. In the interest of building synergy among change efforts, the middle school and high school, both in the midst of restructuring the student population into small learning communities, changed membership in the LCs during the second year to coincide with teacher teams responsible for working with those communities. On the surface, this seemed like the most logical thing to do, but it had serious downsides, particularly because teachers were not consulted. As explained above, some felt coerced while others felt a severe loss of community. Many felt they were being asked to do too much within a limited time frame and that the original purposes of the LCs were lost. Worsening the situation for five of the schools, times for meetings had to change. Some schools moved from multiple meetings every month to extended once-a-month meetings. Those LC participants interviewed unanimously claimed that a month-long interval between meetings was too long and that this impaired the work of the LCs.
As principals grouped teachers because of building schedules or because they wanted representative combinations of teachers learning together or because of restructuring the staff around small learning communities, some teachers failed to see the relevance of working with certain colleagues (Hargreaves, 1991; Little, 2002; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). Subject matter specialists, for instance, could not see the value of collaborating with counselors or other specialists, like P.E. or art teachers, and vice versa. There seemed to be an underestimation of the traditional boundaries, like grade levels and academic content, which tend to divide teachers (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001).
There may also be an underestimation of the difficulties surrounding the building of collegial communities (Achinstein, 2002; Hargreaves, 1991; Little, 2002). Several district administrators and one principal said in interviews that they hoped LCs would engrain in teachers habits of working with one another that eventually could be transported to work with any group of colleagues. One principal worried that the groups could not become a refuge for beleaguered adults but had to rally teachers to work together to improve student learning. She put it this way, It cant be about just build a group, build a group, build a group, and build a group. Yes, its good to build a comfort level, but this is so you can move on to discuss the things that need to be discussed about kids learning (Interview, spring, 2002). A district administrator concurred, We need to get to the point that you can use these protocols and have these conversations whenever youre with colleaguesno matter who they are.
Perhaps both are right, but the NSRF places emphasis on community-building in many of their protocols for solid reasons. In many school cultures, teaching is independent, not collective work (Cohn & Kottkamp, 1993; Lortie, 1975). Teacher talk in typical faculty rooms rarely approaches the kind of professional conversations that the protocols are meant to evoke. Collaboration becomes difficult to negotiate around forces that partition teachers from one another, that is, subject areas, grade levels, complex schedules and responsibilities, and so forth (Hargreaves, 1991; Little, 2002; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). Long characteristic of schools, norms like these cannot be broken without trusting relationships that encourage risk-taking and openness and that seek out and establish common ground so the work seems purposeful and useful. To imagine, in this very early stage of the initiative, that teachers will learn social techniques from their LCs and then simply transfer them to any generic professional community may be wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, both administrators make a strong case that the building of relationships ought to happen in tandem with work to improve teaching and learning. Miller (1986) has convincingly argued that the cultural labor involved in creating harmonious and productive relationships, which is most often associated with women, is often sublimated and invisible. And yet, as Wenger (1998) explains, collegial learning occurs around multiple and interrelated dimensions embracing both practice and communitydeliberate attention needs to be paid to both. In order for the professional community to be strong, it must push the work of improving classroom practice and student learning forward. And in order for the work to progress, the community must bond around common commitments, values, and achievementsall work-related. Appreciating both dimensions has become crucial to the success of LC work.
It seems that the deep communication, inquiry, and critique intended by the LC initiative is inseparable from the quality of relationships in the professional culture. One principal said, Building LC communities opens people to change in a non-threatening way. According to the high school principal:
It develops a common language and common experience. Im seeing collaboration across the grade levels and we arranged our groups in such a way that theyre representative of all the grades with some specialists. People are understanding each others practice like they never have before, but its because they learn to feel safe with each other. They build trust. They find a purpose. That builds more trust (Interview, spring, 2002)
This principal may be on to something. The LCs, whose work is truly focused on student learning, reject the dichotomy between building relationships and accomplishing work. They see how vulnerable educators can feel discussing, analyzing, and critiquing everyday practices in a collegial learning community, especially those practices that may not be working well for all students and perhaps even failing some. Moreover, they see that genuine openness and trust among learning community members is the sine qua non for such conversations. Finally, they recognize that attempts to build trust and openness without a focus on collective professional commitments simply devolve into superficial small talk without real focus or purpose (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001).
The NSRF: Modeling Practitioner Expertise and Commitment to Student Learning
The NSRF brought both credibility and specific strategies, a set of protocols, to the LC initiative. As previously discussed, these protocols cover a range of contingencies for building professional learning communities and for facilitating collective work to improve student learning. Of the internal coaches and participants interviewed, all expressed appreciation for how the protocols kept professional conversations focused, reflective, and productive. During a focus group, a participant said:
The biggest positive thing the protocols do is to get colleagues talking and having conversations between colleagues is the best thing. By having a protocol around the conversations, it keeps us on task and we stay on task. (Focus group, fall, 2002)
An internal coach from the high school agreed:
Ive had a wonderful time with the protocols. Theyre beautifully structured. I think sometimes when youre doing them, theyre frustrating. But in the end when you look at them, theyve helped you focus. What they encourage is that they have most people sharing. Rarely do you have someone opting out. And no ones taking up too much air space. You stay on track. I tend to resist these kinds of thing things, too, but I do think these protocols work. (Interview, spring, 2002)
The protocols have the capacity to evoke critical reflection and dialog. A recent example in one of the original LC initiative elementary schools illustrates this point. The internal coach brought a childs work into her LC, work that she perceived as particularly substandard and disturbing. Using a protocol for studying students work, the group began to see lots of thing the boy was actually working on and what he was trying to do (external coach, personal communication, 2002). Instead of attending only to what was wrong, the protocol helped the group identify openings for engaging the learner.
Without exception, those trained by the NSRF to be coaches repeatedly praise the quality of their experience. It was not unusual to hear, This LC training is the best professional development I have ever experienced. This may be, in part, because NSRF facilitators made their facilitation transparent and taught new coaches to do the same. In the parlance of the NSRF, this means facilitators explicate the reasons behind their decisions as they move the group along in order to demystify leadership. For instance, if an agenda was set, but the facilitator decided to pursue a pressing topic raised by a participant in a discussion, the facilitator would explain exactly why he or she had taken that option, what risk he/she ran in not following the set agenda, and when such a decision might derail a groups progress. In addition, facilitators would frequently explain, in terms of group dynamics, why certain activities preceded others and why a certain kind of protocol-structured conversation was either appropriate or inappropriate in particular circumstances.
The NSRF member who served as external coach for Hillsboro continued this process as she supported internal coaches in the district. As she consulted with coaches, she asked them what they want to accomplish and helped them choose protocols on that basis. She, at one point, invented a new protocol in order to support ongoing, systematic inquiry within the group. She called it I-MAP, a paper-and-pencil method for LC participants to chart what they learn, their reflections on their learning, how they might translate it into practice, what questions were emerging, how they might pursue those questions, and what they might want to bring to the table in the future. Her support, according to internal coaches, was crucial, particularly as she helped them plan and think through agendas, trouble-shoot group dynamics problems, and locate outside resources. Moreover, by creating this particular protocol, the external coach modeled that protocols, in general, are not ends unto themselves but tools for larger purposes.
Interestingly, however, much of the NSRF approach to transparent facilitation during the trainings concentrated on the hows rather than the whys of small learning community facilitation. Unfortunately, coaches appeared primarily concerned with conveying procedures or steps in the protocols. If those trained by NSRF perceive LC participation as merely following a set of procedures, rather than as a coherent and purposeful initiative to change school cultures, then LC participation runs the risk of regressing to an old and familiar dependency on skill acquisition, one that historically has characterized far too much of teachers work (Schon, 1983). If that happened on a wide scale, it would not bode well for the initiative. Once NSRF support leaves the district, for instance, who can sustain this work? Certainly, inside coaches lacking the theoretical, conceptual background for the LCs could not mount the necessary persuasive arguments. Knowing the reasons for productive professional conversations, understanding how oppositional they are to most school cultures, and being able to articulate their value are essential capacities for those interested in making the case for LCs. Without widespread understanding of their theoretical underpinnings, the protocols run the danger of becoming just a complex array of prescriptions and recipes that demand fidelitynot professional judgment.
The protocols can be problematic in other ways. As has been already mentioned, the daunting number of and uses for them proved overwhelmingsometimes even bewilderingto some internal coaches, much less LC participants. One coach complained,
In the beginning, I couldnt believe how many protocols there were. It was just one after the other and I had this big binder and I was thinking Im never going to learn all this. And even now that Im much more comfortable with the idea and know some of the protocols and when to use them better, I still dont know half as much as I need to know to do this. I know I need more training (Interview, fall, 2002).
A majority of coaches, when interviewed, worried aloud that they might not be bringing the right protocols to the group, or that they might not be doing them exactly right, or that they didnt have full command of enough of them. Several participants interviewed could not come up with a description for LC work that transcended anything beyond mastering steps in various protocols. LCs were dependent, in other words, on protocols.
This issue of dependency emerges in other ways. NSRF, knowing the dangers of getting bogged down in what cant be controlled, advises teachers learning communities to concentrate on issues over which they do have control. Ostensibly, this is sensible advice. It is futile and wasteful to spend time and energy lamenting conditions that cant be changed. Moreover, this admonition keeps professional conversations from devolving into griping sessions. As one principal said, It keeps the discussions on a higher plane, focused on kids and their learning (Interview, fall, 2002). Conversely, the advice can become a rationalization for strictly circumscribing the sphere of influence and responsibility that teachers assume. An incident from field notes illustrates the point:
Today, I visited an LC at the high school. Participants discussed norms for their group. Someone said that they wanted opportunities to talk in the group about how the agenda was going to be set because there were important issues theyd like to talk about, especially regarding those students who are learning English as a second language. The facilitator said, Look this is our time mostly. But if an administrator tells me I have to bring something to you during this time, then Ill have to do that. Thats the way it is, and thats not something we can control. We need to concentrate on what we can control. There was a veritable chorus of eye-rolling from a cluster of participants and then clear disengagement. (Field notes, fall, 2002).
Issues of control run throughout the fabric of public school life (Grumet, 1988; Sarason, 1991). What teachers think they can control is frequently more a matter of lore and custom than deliberate negotiation. Thus, without dialog or investigation, some teachers, hearing the admonition to consider only matters over which they know they have control, may be too quick to cede the rest to administrators. The NSRF may be in this way inadvertently abetting teachers in relinquishing the very authority they need to serve students interests.
The NSRF makes clear during their trainings that building relationships is essential to the work of LCs, and this makes sense given the individualistic nature of teaching. Protocols designed specifically as ice breakers and community builders seem to be especially effective, beloved, and widely used by both participants and coaches. The danger, however, is that experiences in community with colleagues, because they have been all too rare, become quite seductive in and of themselves. There can be a tendency to get stuck in repeated cycles of community building. For example, after a year of meeting in his LC, a high school internal coach complained about how few teachers actually brought student work, their assignments and lessons, or instructional problems to the meetings. He remarked, Weve done a few things other than building community, like we looked at some student work once togetherI brought in an assignmentbut mostly, weve been about building community (Interview, spring, 2003).
Another problem has to do with the lockstep sequencing and time limits of most protocols. The NSRF designed the protocols in these ways to accommodate teachers schedules, which allow very little time for reflection and dialog. But some participants find the protocols restricting, irritating, and cumbersome. Sometimes the step-by-step processes dominate over substance. Doubtless, this is, in part, due to the newness of the innovation. Internal coaches are just becoming accustomed to facilitating the protocols, and participants are just learning to engage in them.
Finally, protocols tend to lead participants toward apparent consensus without eliciting conflict. For instance, a presenter might bring a professional dilemma to the table and ask for specific feedback. Protocols structure the conversation so that the presenter is typically either laying out the problem or responding to questions regarding it or listening to others discuss it. Very little open disagreement or difference of opinion occurs, nor are ideological positions raised and contested. An emphasis on civility provides a safe environment for professional exchange, but it can fail to uncover controversial issues that may lie at the heart of certain dilemmas. For example, in one LC, one presenter, a science teacher, opened his presentation with the claim, Kids need to know certain things. He had brought in a students work and asked colleagues to give him feedback on how he could help the student achieve more. His colleagues discussed a few strengths in the students paper and then gingerly challenged the presenter by asking whether the assignment had required too much memorization and too little understanding. Conceding that some memorization might be necessary, they also offered two strategies for scaffolding it. At the end of the session, during his feedback to the group, it was clear that the presenter had only really heard the strategies to help students memorize and not the gentle suggestions to take a more constructivist approach. In other words, the larger conflict about what constitutes learning was dropped. The micropolitics of the group (Achinstein, 2002), including the veteran status of the presenter and his affiliation with a high status academic discipline may have kept the group from pressing the central issue. Moreover, the constant call to build harmony within the group seemed to impede a potentially contentious exploration of what group members really believed about how students learn.
There are serious hazards embedded in these conditions. In trying to adapt to the press of daily life in schools, the NSRF designed the protocols to force conversations into strict stages and timelines in order to make them productive and efficacious. But the processes themselves run the risk of co-optation by entrenched school norms that privilege compliance over innovation. Critical reflection and dialog are core purposes for the LCs, according to the trainings, but there is some evidence that the step-by-step processes in the protocols can actually short circuit both. For instance, in several LC meetings, teachers shared untested, common-sense analyses of instructional problems that actually cried out for more background study and critical analysis, both of which were impossible within the time constraints of the protocol. More disturbing, protocols did not necessarily expose a need to know, did not point out to participants the outside knowledge they might need in order to solve a problem. Moreover, the protocols had a tendency to wrap things up prematurely even when the topic begged for further discussion or inquiry.
On several occasions, for instance, LC participants settled on a problem regarding childrens learning without reflecting on the middle-class perspectives that prevail in most schools and characterize most teachers interpretations. Alarmingly, several groups proceeded from a deficit view of students that dominated the groups deliberations and yet remained unquestioned. One elementary schools LC, for instance, decried the fact that the majority of their students, most often students of color, did not have a command of oral language. They meant the capacity to communicate in standard English. Without getting into the politics of linguistic variations, their discussion made clear they were not recognizing the oral language skills that many of these students did bring into school with them. There did not seem to be a shared understanding that power and privilege can normalize certain behaviors while rendering others deviant or marginal. In other words, the protocols, rather than promoting critical inquiry, including self reflection, seemed to facilitate instead a rush to judgment and premature solutions.
Related to this problem, the NSRF often points out that the work of LCs should hinge on the acceptance that there is no hierarchy of expertise. And yet, this, too, if taken too literally, can be risky. This principle arises from a sincereand badly neededattempt to elevate the value of teacher experience and knowledge, particularly given the hubris of some educational researchers and policy-makers and the gendered nature of the teaching profession in a larger society that dismisses womens experiences and the knowledge borne of it (Belenky et al, 1986; Harding, 1991). In fact, however, particular situations and issues demand different kinds of expertise. There is no question that practitioner expertise is essential to the improvement of student learning, but practitioners, like all other experts, need to weigh what they know in light of other sources of knowledge and with other perspectives, while questioning their assumptions in the process. They need to know, in other words, both the power and the limits of their knowledge. There may be occasions when teacher expertise, no matter how valuable, needs bolstering or even contradiction by other forms of knowledge outside the profession. There needs to be clear recognition that at certain times and in certain situations, some forms of expertise may be temporarily more valuable and useful than others.
If these potential problems are confronted, the NSRF has offered a form of professional development that might have the power to profoundly change school cultures and rally educators to systematically support students learning. NSRF assistance to the district was varied and rich, and those who participated in the training say the professional development was uplifting and revitalizing. After training, most returned to their work enthusiastic, committed, and skilled. Some actually made a difference in their professional cultures, helping to bridge unlikely alliances in the effort to improve student learning. One principal explained that the district . . . is becoming a collaborative culture. The signs are everywherenot just in the LCs but in faculty meetings, in the superintendents office, in the Office of Teaching and Learning, in classrooms. Its changing us (Interview, spring, 2002).
Strong Leadership and Whose Agenda Is it, Anyway?
At the time of this study, leaders, including the superintendent, the principals, district office administrators, and the internal coaches, at the district and building levels enjoy, for the most part, the respect of the staff. The vision for the districts improvement seemed clear and compelling: student learning would improve if educators worked together to ensure quality instruction and student work carefully aligned with high standards. Building capacity in the district amounted to building multiple sites for practitioner leadership. The superintendent related this vision frequently in her public speeches; she wrote about it in the district newsletter; OTL administrators paraphrased the vision in interviews and seemed to actively pursue it; principals and teachers talked about it and in similar terms in their LCs and interviews with me; and at some grade levels, even the students were talking the language of high standards. The vision, by all accounts, seemed to have taken hold and infused a can-do attitude into a formerly demoralized district.
Moreover, leaders in the district constantly reiterated the notion, We are all in this together. There was a concerted and deliberate effort among many in the district to avoid the divisions and misunderstandings that frequently occur between teachers and administrators, building principals and district officials, and so forth. The LC initiative facilitated this effort by creating common experiences and instilling the notion that all of good faith had something of value to contribute. One principal, for instance, emphasized that administrators working with teachers who are, in turn, working together are much more likely to improve instruction in their buildings:
What Im seeing is that we all have shared hopes nowa shared visionthat together we can make a difference for kids. Its no longer, Well, they should have learned that last year. Now, its that weve got these kids not learning what they should be learning and were asking how can we get together and make this happen? And Im not seen, as a principal, as being separate or judgmental or something. Were a team.
Past leadership, however, always casts a shadow on the present. From the perspective of some of the Hillsboro staff, multiple change initiatives have materialized, faltered, and died over time with little input from them. Resistance to any form of change has taken root in some circles. One teacher, representative of those who see district level decisions as remote from the real work of teaching, said in an interview, Sometimes I think this LC stuff is just another clever way to get teachers to work together in order to accomplish the districts work. An internal coach in the high school tried to describe what he was picking up among participants in his LC, I know theyre thinking: is this the district just selling us another bill of goods or is this legitimate? Yet another teacher in the middle school said, I hardly have time now to work with my students and I dont have time to be in these groups if theyre just happening because theyre the latest fad.
It does not help that some teachers feel they hear mixed messages about the purposes and control of the LCs. Although the fundamental goal for the groups is always to improve student learning, the particular agendas for the meetings are supposed to be in the hands of internal coaches and participants. Again, this has to do with empowerment and agency. If teachers are to take seriously their responsibility to ensure all students learning, then they need opportunities to discover for themselves how collaboration can develop professional judgment and expertise and to rid themselves of habitually looking to those outside their profession for answers. If teachers are to see district work and teachers work as serving the same purposes, then they will need to have input into how district work is conceptualized and pursued. Many administrators in the district seem to understand this. Three of the principals, in fact, talked in interviews about how, although they wanted to participate in their schools LCs, they chose to stay away because, in the words of one principal, the LCs belong to the teachers (Interview, fall, 2001).
Nevertheless, the internal coaches, supported by reports from the external coach, said that LC agendas have been repeatedly interrupted by district work, particularly assessment work. District leaders, under pressure from the state to provide evidence of improved student achievement, worked hard to develop multiple and reliable modes of assessment so that standardized tests will not be the sole measure of success. They needed teachers involved in this effort. From their perspective, including teachers was the collaborative and responsible approach. From the perspective of some LC participants, however, using LC time for this work became an intrusion that fostered distrust. Several internal coaches complained in interviews that last-minute directives to look at data or do some other district work undermined the confidence and efficacy they were trying to build in the LCs. All of this raised an important question: Is it possible to successfully implement, sustain, and take seriously professional learning communities for teachers if the bottom-line arbiters for the quality of teaching and learning are standardized tests?
In one school, a call to begin peer observations, one of the potential purposes for LCs, brought anxiety and resentment. An administrator explained,
There are some people that still think this [the LCs] is a way for the administration to force them to be better teachers. They dont see it as they should be working to own their own improvement. Its an old belief system meeting a new one. And we have to continue to press the new one.
The new belief system to which the administrator referred will be difficult to establish, however, if leadership can change agendas and impose new purposes for the LCs. On the one hand, there is the charge for teachers to take ownership over their own work and development through LC work; on the other, there is the message that administrators, finally, control the content of the meetings. Although teachers and administrators ought to share the same work, working together so that all students learn, the hierarchical nature of most school cultures frequently means that administrators define and direct that work and teachers become socialized to that reality (Grumet, 1988; Schon, 1983). Thus, the LC initiative could be used to mask more traditional demands for compliance and obedience.
For some internal coaches, this tension felt especially compromising. One coach explained,
Sometimes theres a building issue, a discipline issue, or some other thing that intervenes. And I have to ask myself, do we stop what were doing in order to do what is immediately needed. But most of the time I say, no, this is the agenda and this work is important. But then the day before we are supposed to meet, an administrator announces we have to do something and then I have nothing to say in it. I have to go into the LC and look people in the eyes and say weve got to do this. And then I lose them. . .
Again, related to all of these issues is the question of mandated or voluntary participation. Those who resisted being made to join a group were likely to feel even more affronted if the groups agenda was also mandated. Volunteers felt squelched and dispirited by the resistance of the resistors. Because the district has already committed to 100% participation, leaders needed to think carefully about what other controls they exercised over these fledglingand fragilecommunities.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Weighing the negatives against the positives of the LCs in Hillsboro during the first two years is frankly fairly easy because the successes, particularly given such an early stage in the project, outweighed the problems. Some LCs advanced by leaps and bounds to reviewing and assessing student work and critiquing professional practices. In only two years, the district had made great strides toward institutionalization, and by all accounts, the LCs had planted seeds for substantial change in the district culture.
Particularly exciting toward the end of the two years was the emphasis the NSRF began placing on building systematic inquiry into the work of LCs. Teachers in at least one LC were learning to pose a question or problem, to develop action plans, and to collect data on what happened for students as they took action. Two internal coaches, under the careful mentorship of the outside NSRF coach, have begun organizing group discussions around a shared question regarding student literacy, an all-school focus. Both have a sophisticated understanding about the processes and potential for shared inquiry.
Despite these signs during the spring of the second year that the work was taking hold and deepening, such an ambitious change initiative is inevitably fragile, particularly in its early stages. A number of changes render the initiative particularly vulnerable. First, the superintendent announced that she was moving to a state department of education position, and she had been a particularly steady and powerful supporter of LCs. Second, several of the district schools tests failed to rise, and one of these schools was among the three elementary schools originally included in the initiative. The new superintendent, under close watch by the state, key players in the district, and the community at large, has placed strong emphasis on test scores. Many of the schools have once again reconfigured the LCs explicitly for that purpose. Some LC participants believe that their groups have lost both community and focus.
If the LC initiative is going to succeed, leadership needs to attend carefully to the potential weak spots discussed above and shore them up with direct, deliberate action. Sometimes that action has to be pre-emptive and preventative rather than responsive. In particular, the following steps should be taken:
The rationale behind NSRF protocols needs to be unpacked during trainings and LC meetings.
The NSRF needs to ensure that those they train understand why LCs hold promise for improving student learning, not just how to facilitate them. Internal coaches should be able to articulate clearly the rationale behind the LCs, so that they can make a case for them to participants and others. Once coaches have a command of the theoretical principles underlying the work of the LCs, the protocols will become the tools for rather than the content of meetings. Moreover, judgments about which protocol to use when will become less mysterious, and perhaps participants can design their own protocols, tailored for particular local situations, contexts, and needs. They will truly understand that it is the quality of their collaborative conversations and inquiry that matter for their worknot their skill in using protocols.
During training of LC coaches, the countercultural nature of the LCs needs to be emphasized.
No amount of enthusiasm and energy generated in the training can erase the inevitable collision of LCs with the norms of traditional school cultures. Internal coaches, in particular, need to be prepared for this, but district and building administrators also need to recognize potential minefields. Part of LC training should involve developing a disciplined understanding of ways that LCs may be construed as threatening or disruptive to existing power relations. There is a strong need for greater clarity about vision, authority, and control with regard to the LCs. In the end, practitioners cannot be both malleable and acquiescent and yet also assertive and exploratory in taking responsibility for student learning and the collaborative culture of their schools and districts.
LC training should include key insights into the ambiguities of school change.
Because LCs are not immune to forces that have stifled other change initiatives, internal coaches need to understand predictable barriers to change. Without this understanding, LCs are subject to premature failure. Both administrators and internal coaches need to be well versed in and sensitive to ways that LCs might disrupt taken-for-granted expectations and ways of thinking and acting. Moreover, while it is important to explore opportunities to create synergy among multiple change efforts, it is also wise for leadership to monitor potential ideological contradictions and excessive burdens on staff.
Case studies for future trainings should be developed from the actual experiences of LC participants and coaches.
Future participants and coaches could benefit greatly from discussing and analyzing case studies designed around the genuine struggles of veterans in this work. These tales from the field might come from NSRF external coaches and from LC coaches and participants in the districts. Trainees could have opportunities to read, discuss, and analyze these cases through the lens of change theory, for instance, or they could interpret them through the multiple perspectives of key players. Certainly, they could learn about resistance, regression, and frustration involved in change efforts and ways their colleagues coped or failed to cope with them. In any case, the exercise might better prepare them for a variety of inevitable challenges.
LC participants need space and time to create their own agendas and see them through.
If teachers are truly to shoulder the responsibility for ensuring that all children learnif they are, in short, to take ownership for the quality of teaching that goes on in their schools and to consider LC participation a crucial means for ensuring that happensthen administrators need to avoid confounding and/or conflating the work of LCs with other change initiatives. Many teachers believe they receive double messages about who controls the LC agendas. On the one hand, they are told LCs are for the teachers. On the other, they hear that the LCs are a way to get district work done. It will require more trust and constructive experiences before most of the districts teachers will perceive their work as inseparable from district work and vice versa. In the meantime, administrators need to nurture a newly-awakened sense of both responsibility and efficacy.
LC training should link community building more explicitly with the work of improving teaching earlier in the process.
It is a false dichotomy to separate relationship building from collaborative work. In fact, as Wenger (1998) suggests, deep collegial relationships develop when colleagues share values and meanings focused on mutual work, but the quality of the work LCs are meant to undertake depends on the strength of the relationships. Ice-breakers and making connections should never be, even in the early stages, the sole activities undertaken in an LC. Although they seem efficacious in building goodwill and trust, they need to be followed by work-related interactions. The latter, in fact, should constitute most of the allotted LC time. If participating teachers are too intimidated or shy to bring student work, assignments, dilemmas, and so forth to the table in the beginning, then exemplars from veteran LC teachers or coaches can be substituted.
The district needs to allow sufficient time for the LCs to truly take hold.
The LC initiative is a promising approach to making learning experiences more productive for children in public schools. There is much to recommend such an approach. In the spirit of the LCs, teachers are to take greater responsibility for their own practices and for those of their colleagues, weighing the relative value of teaching approaches in terms of tangible evidence of students learning. Participation in the LCs harvests the experience and expertise of teachers and brings it to authentic problems and dilemmas of teaching and learning. But the project also faces profound obstacles, enumerated in detail above. This initiative needs and deserves sufficient time to allow it to succeed.
Administrators should commit to stabilizing membership of the LCs, limiting the size of the groups, and increasing frequency of meetings to more than once a month.
Productive, trusting relationships are essential to the work of LCs. In order to establish such relationships, the groups need, within reason, to be both manageable and stable. Of course, there will be staff turn-over, and a change in one or two members can be accommodated. But both the quality of relationships and the depth of collegial work suffer when groups reconfigure from one year to the next. LCs also need to meet more regularly than once per month. A month-long interval between meetings dissipates momentum and blurs focus. If the LCs are to embark on an agenda of disciplined, shared inquiry into common problems, they will need more frequent contact with one another, and administrators will have to resist interruptions and cancellations.
One Final Word
The success or failure of efforts to improve student learning, in the end, resides with teachers. Perhaps the most promising aspect of the Learning Communities Project is that it has been designed by and for teachers who are sincerely committed to all students learning. This initiative has held out the enticing possibility that the LCs might actually transform how teachers understand and conduct their work. In order to support this vision, Lucent Technologies Foundation extended funding for the project, taking it to a new phase whereby internal coaches launched into projects requiring shared inquiry focused on student learning. Participants themselves began to document their processes and emerging understandings. This came at a particularly key point in the history of the project as Hillsboros superintendent, so supportive of this initiative, left to take another position.
If the LCs in Hillsboro are going to indeed succeed, accountability for high quality teaching must be truly internalized by individual teachers and embedded in the professional culture of schools. If the LCs fulfill that possibility, teachers, as they confront difficult problems with student learning, might be less tempted to turn away from these problems, to give up on them, to find others to blame for them, or to wait for others to produce solutions. Instead, they might be more likely to turn to one another, take collective responsibility, and actively pursue effective solutions. No recipe for change could promise more than the revitalization and empowerment of those whose work directly affects what children actually experience in their classroomstheir teachers.
Achinstein, B. (2002). Conflict amid community: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration. Teachers College Record. 104(3), 421455.
Apple, M. (1995). Education and power. New York: Routledge.
Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Womens ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (2001). Beyond certainty: Taking an inquiry stance on practice. In A. Lieberman, & L. Miller (Eds.), Teachers caught in the action (pp. 4558). New York: Teachers College Press.
Cohn, M. M., & Kottkamp, R. B. (1993). Teachers, the missing voice in education. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Cremin, L. A. (1964). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education.
New York: Vintage Books.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey, J. (1929). The sources of a science of education. New York: Horace Liveright.
Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Freire, P., Clarke, P., & Aronowitz, S. (2000). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Fullan, M. (2002). Change forces with a vengeance. New York: Falmer Press.
Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: A critical reader. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Giroux, H. A. (1988) Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. New York: Bergin & Garvey.
Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw Hill.
Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Grant, G., & Murray, C. E. (2002). Teaching in America: The slow revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record. 103(6), 9421012.
Grumet, M. R. (1988). Bitter milk: Women and teaching. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge?: Thinking from womens lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hargreaves, A. (1991). Contrived collegiality: The micropolitics of teacher collaboration. In J. Blasé (Ed.), The politics of life in schools (pp. 4672). New York: Sage Publications.
Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers work and culture in the postmodern age. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hofmann, N. (1981). Womans true profession: Voices from the history of teaching. New York: Feminist Press.
Lieberman, A., & Wood, D. R. (2002). Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting network learning and classroom teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.
Little, J. W. (2002). Professional community and the problem of high school reform. International Journal of Educational Research. 37, 693714.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Martin, J. R. (1994). Changing the educational landscape. New York: Routledge.
McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.
Miller, J. B. (1986). Toward a new psychology of women, 2nd Ed., Boston: Beacon Press.
Oakes, J., Quartz, K. H., Ryan, S., & Lipton, M. (2000). Becoming good American schools: The struggle for civic virtue in education reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Sarason, S. (1996). Revisiting the culture of the school and the problem of change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Sarason, S. B. (1991). The predictable failure of educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.
Scott, A. O. (2003, February 9). Destined for failure, New York Times Magazine, p. 15.
Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
Sockett, H. (1993). The moral basis for teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.
Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Waller, W. (1967). The sociology of teaching (original work published in 1932). New York: Wiley Publishing.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wessler, S. L. (2003). The respectful school: How educators and students can conquer hate and harassment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wood, D. R., & Lieberman, A. (2000). Teachers as authors: The National Writing Projects approach to professional development. In C. A. Mullen & J. S. Kaminsky (Guest Eds.), Escapes from high theory: Theory-assisted practice (pp. 255273). Special edition of International Journal of Leadership in Education, 3(3).