Sustaining Professional Learning Communities
reviewed by Linda Friedrich - December 09, 2008
Title: Sustaining Professional Learning Communities
Author(s): Alan M. Blankstein, Paul D. Houston, and Robert W. Cole (Eds.)
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 1412949386, Pages: 204, Year: 2007
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The literature of education reform is, unfortunately, replete with examples of beneficial changes that failed the test of time. How can we work together to create learning communities that support enduring change? (p. 2)
This statement in Coles introduction to this edited volume highlights a central and lasting question confronting educators. Once a positive reform has been initiated, how does it withstand inevitable changes in personnel, priorities, and policies? In the third volume of the series, The Soul of Educational Leadership, Blankstein, Houston and Cole have assembled retrospective analyses of reforms, research syntheses, and prescriptive essays of interest to reformers as well as school and district administrators. While the chapters vary in the degree to which they explicitly address questions of both sustainability and professional learning communities, several important ideas related to maintaining these communities emerge from a careful reading of this volume.
Professional learning communities must focus on authentic student and teacher learning. Hargreaves provocative concluding essay provides the following definition for what constitutes a professional learning community:
The essential elements of professional learning communities operating at their best are now well known: teachers working together around a common mission, employing a clear plan and making intelligent use of evidence to pinpoint areas of needed intervention in order to enhance learning and raise achievement for all students. (p. 187)
Hargreaves provides both cautionary and optimistic notes as he paints seven images of professional learning communities. Four types of communities, in particular, threaten deep implementation of professional communities focused on student learning those that exist in name only (titular communities); those formed to secure compliance to highly scripted curricula (totalitarian training sects); those that become so focused on analysis of test data that they lose sight of broader educational goals (autistic surveillance systems); and those that focus on quick-fixes to the exclusion of making deeper, long-term changes (speed dating agencies). Hargreaves, Louis, and other authors emphasize that in order to be truly effective and sustainable, professional learning communities must maintain a core emphasis on how teachers can improve the connection between their daily instructional practice and student learning (p. 45).
The development of trust (among teachers and between teachers and administrators) is an important precursor to school-wide formation and sustenance of professional learning communities. In analyzing the Newport News, VA school districts success in implementing professional learning communities and improving student learning, Pascal and Blankstein describe how district leadership worked to build trust at all levels of the system in the opening phases of the reform effort. In this case, trust was built by building on strengths already present; engaging in regular communication among the superintendent, district- and school-level leadership, support staff, and teachers; and by providing opportunities for everyone to have input. Trust seemed to be a critical element in facilitating conversations about changing core teaching practices that were not effective with students.
Virtually every chapter notes that positional leaders play a central role in launching, successfully implementing, and then sustaining professional learning communities. These leaders (i.e., superintendents, principals) communicate the importance of reforms, including professional learning communities, by allocating resources, articulating priorities, and developing the leadership capacities of others. For example, Agueberres vignettes of two schools which used the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards core principles as a framework for guiding teacher learning and collaboration illustrate that administrative leadership matters in forming and sustaining professional learning communities. Agueberre points out how administrators provided resources that supported the work of professional learning communities and also participated as thoughtful members of such communities. When positional leadership is lacking, even well implemented and resourced efforts ultimately fade away. Leveretts reflections on why instructional changes he championed failed after his departure as Ettaville, NJs (pseudonym) superintendent illustrate this point. In retrospect, Leverett realized that he failed to fully engage the school board in understanding the importance of social and emotional learning. Thus when he departed, top administrative support also disappeared.
The essays in this volume do not, however, advocate either a purely top down approach or a bottom up approach to forming communities. Several authors argue that without deep investment of teachers, reforms have limited staying power. In fact, Hord and Hirsh make the case that the needs of professionals are paramount in determining the focus and direction of professional learning communities (p. 24). In an analysis of the long-term sustainability of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, Elias highlights the importance of teacher investment: Even with the staunchest support of the school administrator, SEL programs cannot thrive without the commitment of other members of the school community (p. 78). He learned that schools characterized by significant teacher buy-in were better able to continue SEL programs even during periods of administrative turnover, whereas in schools in which SEL was implemented as just another program, only those teachers who were most interested continued to incorporate these ideas.
In order to be sustainable, professional learning communities need to be integrated into the professional life of teachers and schools and keep focused on school-wide (or district) goals they cant be add-ons. In instances in which the notion of professional learning community was layered onto an already rich professional learning environment or one dimension of time-intensive reforms they were unlikely to get implemented deeply and even less likely to be sustained (pp. 44-45).
Finally, this collection of essays points to the complexity and fragility of professional learning communities. Building on Hargreaves work, Louis outlines four essential tensions that educators need to consider as they work to build and sustain learning communities: depth and breadth; stability and change; diversity and focus; and networking and integration (pp. 52-54). This volume does not offer easy answers to the question of how to support enduring change. However, it raises important considerations for those seeking to create more collaborative professional cultures aimed at improving student learning. The illustrations of both school- and district-level change help readers see what is possible and anticipate the challenges that lie ahead.